Most of us know what it means to be lonely. We can feel it. Maybe we have felt sad because a friend is no longer around us or our family has moved away. This seems quite natural and easy to explain. Now consider when this state of sadness grows deeper and lasts longer with no means of making it stop. This may now be defined as "depression."
Our world's recent and current state of the pandemic has brought most of us to this first state of separation and isolation. At no fault of our own we are more alone, more separated. Consider those who have no means of leaving their home, no independent means of participating with others, no ability to be with their most important others.
Most of us know the simple and understandable "rules" that support a healthy lifestyle. We know about balanced nutrition, physical movement, sleep, hydration and social engagement. The recent and ongoing pandemic has forced all of us to rethink and in some cases move away from these rules as restrictions and limitations are in place. For those with the least resources and flexibility of choice, their level of health and wellness simply declines.
A recent study of health and social service providers by the University of Washington has alarmingly labeled the social isolation experienced as a result of necessary confinement as the "double pandemic." These findings have led to expectations that the effect may linger well past the lifting of restrictions, including "exacerbated problems of dementia, depression, suicide risk, and disrupted care."
It's not a big leap to think that this sudden and lingering isolation has and will create feelings of loneliness that may escalate to sadness, worthlessness and depression. In fact, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report in 2020 that social isolation in adults aged 50 and older places their health at risk. Even more concerning may be their reported finding that social isolation has been shown associated with a nearly 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia. Additionally, this scientific report, funded by AARP Foundation, found that 43% of adults aged 60 and older in the US are now reporting feelings of loneliness. For this nurse and daughter, I simply could not ignore these well-researched findings that loneliness and isolation can contribute to cognitive decline. I needed to find practical and safe interventions.
Social connection can be an action or a feeling that we all have when we connect with others. I know how proud I feel when someone calls to chat or ask my advice. I also know how comforted I feel when I can tell others about my stress, needs or even my fears. Even when logically unobtainable and a risk to our health, we seek this social support.
Before this forced isolation, many seniors may have enjoyed routine activities that offered hidden health benefits. Simple trips up and down the grocery store aisle that provided much needed exercise, visual and brain stimulation, and independence are now on pause. Communal meals within senior living communities are on hold, removing the motivating reasons for getting properly dressed and maintaining physical appearances. The simple social activities of in-person games and exercises have been replaced with sole similar activities, hardly encouraging or as fun by any measure.
While we can't remove the masks or return to full social engagement at this time, we can use our cleverness and affection to improve their daily lives. Consider if some of these actions will improve the daily lives of those you know and care about that are socially isolated.
Bring Back Old Hobbies
You may recall some of the hobbies or interests chosen by your loved senior in years past. Try and recreate these activities within the forced limits. For the reader, libraries now offer safe on-line ordering and protected pick-up, including books in larger print. Ask yours about audio books that are already loaded into easy to use devices. Maybe your senior is looking for news of their favorite sports or celebrities. Consider a new surprise magazine subscription delivered directly to their mailbox.
Encourage A New Hobby Or Interest
Benefit from all you know about your loved senior as you explore ideas for new hobbies. How about bringing the gardener inside with a new house plant to manage. Or offer to deliver supplies for a new hobby such as drawing or knitting. Many people, possibility in a depressed state, are unable to consider a new venture. Presented as an opportunity to create objects of art for others, such as their grandchildren, may be just the trick.
Use The Technology You Have
Telephone communication has become an even more vital means of social connection. You may find value in exploring local and national programs that offer seniors a friendly voice. AARP's Friendly Voice program welcomes seniors to sign up for a social call from a trained volunteer. (Learn more by calling 888-281-0145.)
Seek Out New Tech
Many seniors are simply never going to learn to bridge their barriers to operate computers, iPads or even smartphones. However, advances in technology are bringing helpful tools to the hands of those in forced social isolation. Consider how products can provide much needed connections, even for those with little or no experience or knowledge in their use. An expansive report by the National Council for Biotechnology Information of the National Institutes of Health reported that IT provides a means to deliver targeted, personalized interventions that can directly address the challenges of loneliness and social isolation.
Consider sending a senior you love an Heirloom Video Book (available on this site), which offers non-tech users a personalized physical book with an integrated video player that automatically plays when opened. This small business' mission is to make it possible for special moments to be shared with family and friends, even when those you love don't have access to the internet or a smartphone.
Start Your Own Friendly Call Program
This effort can be as simple as organizing your family, including the younger members, to call your senior on a regular basis. And, to encourage the calls try helping your senior keep notes for the next call: talk about their meals, their favorite books and movies, a special memory they shared together, a funny story when they were the grandchild's age. With a little pre-planning, you can fill a 15 minute phone call. Consider asking your senior some engaging questions:
- "Grandma, please tell me more about your school, days when you were in my grade".
- "Grandpa, please tell me about your first job; or a job that you loved the most".
- "Uncle, please tell me more about what you did with my Dad for fun. What games did you like the play the most".
- "Mom, please tell me about two of your favorite recipes. I want to write them down and save them for all the family".
And remember, you can write down their answers and save them in a family journal, or record them to save your senior's voice and exact words.
Welcome A New Family Member
While not for everyone, a small and easy to care for new pet may be just the friend that can safely visit and offer companionship. After checking with your seniors' living arrangement, consider suggesting a new pet. Possibly a caged bird, a fishbowl full of new creatures or small cat can become a real mood-booster. The responsibility of providing care and the stimulation of watching the pet can become a daily activity, energizing the senior and creating a companionship that is safe at this time.
A new company, Joy For All Companion Pets, was created to bring companionship and fun to aging loved ones. Their robotic dog and cat toys are designed to comfort older adults. Focusing on the health and wellness space, the creators were convinced that creating engaging products that foster meaningful connections through play, joy and happiness would have a positive impact on seniors.
The act of offering your time and talent to help others, without the expectation of payment, is an altruistic act we named volunteering. We all must learn that this act should also be known as good for the doer. Volunteering offers many benefits, none more important than the feeling of belonging and promoting your sense of purpose. Consider exploring for opportunities that your isolated senior can do from the safety of their home. AARP's Create the Good website allows you to search for volunteer opportunities. It's loaded with helpful tips to Do-It-Yourself Volunteer projects. Consider, for example, intergenerational programs that encourage a senior to help a young child, possibly by reading to them via telephone or sharing pen pal letters and art work.
We all hope for the day when our public health and medical professionals tell us we can return to normal socialization. For our seniors this will mean active days, complete with social engagements, visitors and outings, leading to less loneliness and more joy overall.
Dr. Randee Bloom, RN, MBA, PhD is a retired nurse and healthcare administrator. She has a PhD in nonprofit management and serves on the board of several national healthcare nonprofits. Dr. Bloom is a national volunteer ambassador for AARP and two of her children, Ashley and Zack, are the founders of Heirloom. Dr. Bloom's own mother is in her 90's and is forced to remain isolated to protect her health as COVID-19 remains uncontrolled.