Senior Isolation is Common and Avoidable

March 14, 2019

By: Allison Kauffman 

Being a wife and mother to three teenage daughters, I feel like I never have a second to myself. But I am definitely not complaining because I know there will come a day when the girls have all moved out of our house and will have their own lives and their own families. I try to soak up every second of time I have with them now before it’s too late. 

This makes me think about the future and sometimes I lie awake wondering what my life will be like when it’s just my husband with me. I feel very fortunate to have my husband by my side and I catch myself feeling sad for the person dining alone at a restaurant or going to the movies alone. I wonder how they are coping on their own and if they feel isolated or lonely.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11-million, or 28 percent of people aged 65 and older, live alone. While living alone does not inevitably lead to sadness and despair, in many cases it can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly if the senior doesn’t have children.  This can lead to serious consequences for their health.  Social contacts can decrease as we age due to retirement from work, death of friends or family members and lack of mobility.  Research shows loneliness can lead to depression, higher blood pressure and can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

RiverWoods Senior Living Community Chaplain Reverend Kate Morse says activities and social connections can make a big difference for a senior dealing with loneliness. She said, “I think what’s most important in times of loneliness and isolation is to be intentional about connecting with activities which bring a sense of purpose and personal fulfillment.  This could include hobbies, reaching out to others (either by phone or in person over a cup of coffee etc.) and/or physical exercise.  I find that many residents at RiverWoods enjoy engaging in games which require mental stimulation such as word finds, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles and even solitaire or Sudoku.”

Kate also indicated that when someone is feeling isolated or lonely, it can be hard for them to find the energy to take the initiative to do something active or engaging, but that is what needs to occur to elevate their mood. She recommends making a list of tasks that need to occur and intentionally crossing off each item once it’s completed. Also recommended is setting up a schedule which might include a certain number of tasks to be completed by lunchtime, and then a few more by late afternoon. Kate said, “Be realistic about what must be done and what can wait until feelings of sadness change. Good old behavior modification works quite well too, including built in “rewards” once tasks are completed.” She says the rewards don’t need to cost money or involve anything overly significant. For example, a show on Netflix can be watched in the evening once household chores are completed. 

Every single human being-regardless of age– goes through times which cause sadness or periods of personal reflection around issues of change and loss. For some, specific dates might hold particular meaning. For others, it’s holidays, seasons or periods of time.  Just because one person might struggle around a certain event, that doesn’t mean that the same date holds the same meaning for all. Morse said, “I find that often it’s not always the significant and obvious events that cause considerable sadness, but often the seemingly smaller ones. A few years ago, a patient in the hospital told me that she thinks about the family farm each year on the date it was sold and feels sad. While she finds comfort in her faith on the date of her spouse’s death (specifically, she was certain he was with Jesus), it’s the sale of the family farm that continued to be especially hard for her.”

Kate continued, “I also have learned that there are dates which the mind may have forgotten, but the body remembers. For example, a few years ago I couldn’t figure out why every bone in my body hurt for the better part of a week. Then I remembered a significant and grief-filled event that had occurred during that week many years prior. While I didn’t consciously remember, there’s no question my body remembered and responded accordingly.” 

Kate has served as a chaplain for different organizations, currently serving at RiverWoods, which is owned and operated by Albright Care Services. She said, “I commend Albright Care for recognizing the benefit of a full-time chaplain at each campus. Chaplains have training and education which is often beyond a local parish pastor to actively listen in such a way that the individual is encouraged to share on a deeper level the source of pain/upset.  This can result in a conversation about what is causing these feelings, including a response to the feelings, a spiritual perspective utilizing the individual’s faith background and acknowledge feelings in such a way that that has significant benefit. A chaplain does not hesitate to delve into the depth of emotion with respect, sensitivity and confidentiality. Instead of a platitude (“it’ll be fine”) there’s a genuine desire to provide the individual with an opportunity to think through and process their feelings and emotions in a non-judgmental, caring and supportive setting.” 

Other resources could include traditional therapy, their own clergy person/worship leader or even a trusted friend or confident. Primary Care Physicians can often be of assistance in helping someone access the care they need. At Albright Care Services, Chaplain Kate Morse is available at RiverWoods Senior Living Community and Chaplain David Brinker is available at Normandie Ridge Senior Living Community. More information is available online at Normandie Ridge Spiritual Enrichment and RiverWoods Spiritual Enrichment

AgingCare.com has some tips for alleviating loneliness for seniors: 

  • Help a loved one discover interests and hobbies they may enjoy or have enjoyed in the past.
  • Develop a strategy to defeat seclusion. If your loved one enjoys singing, sign them up for singing groups or performances.  
  • Caregivers should let loved ones teach them new skills. So, if your mother enjoys knitting, share time together where she can teach you how to knit, giving her a sense of purpose.
  • Bridge the generation gap by having loved ones spend one-on-one time with their grandchildren. Come up with fun crafts and activities they can do together that will be memorable.    
  • A simple card or a phone call or even a text message can go a long way in letting a loved one know you are on their mind, even when you can’t be together. 
  • Consider senior living where they can take part in activities, meet friends and dine with others. Find out more online at AlbrightCare.org.
  • Consider the LIFE program at Albright Care Services, where seniors spend the day in a center with others, doing activities, therapy and sharing meals together. 

Although loneliness is normal at some point in your life, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Just making an effort to get someone you know and love actively involved or engaged in social activities can make a big difference for them personally, but also for their health and well-being. 

And for those who are unable to participate in activities or group events, social interaction is critical. Cindy Walker, Meals on Wheels Coordinator at RiverWoods Senior Living Community, says social interaction with someone during the day is as important as the hot meal they are delivering. She explained, “Sometimes our volunteer is the only person someone sees all day long.  A friendly face and a smile can be something that person depends on and looks forward to.” To learn more about Meals on Wheels delivery services, you can click here: Meals on Wheels at RiverWoods.

That is where a card or letter can make a big difference or a visit from a grandchild or pet. Something that simple can change someone’s outlook on the day and their feeling of sadness or loneliness can turn into anticipation or excitement.