From time to time here at AgingOptions we think it’s important to remind people of a hidden danger that could be affecting both the physical and emotional health of an aging loved one. That hidden threat is isolation. “Social isolation is rampant among older adults who lose mobility, lack transportation options or live alone or away from family,” says one expert on aging. “The impact of isolation is severe. Don’t underestimate it.”
This admonition comes from a very recent article on the website NextAvenue. It was written by a healthcare CEO named David Inns, whose company specializes in technological solutions that help promote healthy, active aging. The article does raise some valuable points about the need for seniors and their families to combat the threat of loneliness and isolation as they age. If we have one area of disagreement with the article, it’s that in our view it seems to place just a bit too much emphasis on technological solutions to combat isolation, as opposed to hands-on human ones. More on that in a moment.
Physicians and mental health experts are starting to understand more clearly the damaging effects of isolation among seniors. One recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that as many as 43 percent of older adults report feelings of loneliness. Another study a few years ago revealed a strong connection between isolation and mortality – the greater the loneliness, the higher the death rate. There’s also a strong correlation between isolation and depression, which is known to be deadly to seniors. “Depression later in life has been associated with cognitive impairment and dementia,” writes David Inns. He adds that depression is also linked to other illnesses, because depression can be triggered by poor health. “Since approximately 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition and 50 percent have two or more, being aware of these risks and taking steps to encourage social activities is essential.”
If isolation is so prevalent among seniors and its effects so damaging, why don’t more families take steps to help aging loved ones feel more engaged? The NextAvenue article doesn’t speak to this but here at AgingOptions we have our own theories based on many years of personal involvement with thousands of families. As Rajiv Nagaich often says, “Aging is a family affair,” yet for many families that doesn’t seem to be true. As long as Mom or Dad can be safely tucked away in a care facility, too many busy adult children think they’ve done all that’s required of them, which is why so many residents of nursing homes seldom if ever have a regular visit from family and friends. “This doesn’t happen in other cultures,” Rajiv emphasizes, “where the elderly are held in high regard. It seems to me to be a Western phenomenon – and I think it’s a disgrace.” Helping seniors feel more socially engaged is something all of us can do.
The article from David Inns in NextAvenue makes some suggestions about how to overcome isolation and loneliness, but as we said above, his ideas seem to favor technology over person-to-person connectivity. Inns recommends seniors involve themselves in the activities offered by local senior centers, some of which (especially in larger cities) are going through a major make-over to better appeal to a new generation of retirees. (For a related story on the new trends in senior centers, see this article published last month on our blog.) In communities where no such centers exist, churches, mosques and synagogues may help fill the bill by offering a regular slate of activities for older adults. But if these options fail, writes Inns, technology can fill the bill with “virtual senior centers” that offer “organized video chats,” not to mention online chat rooms and Facebook forums. We suppose these technological solutions have their place – but we hope family members won’t shirk their responsibility to pay a visit because they’ve convinced themselves that Mom or Dad is just as happy interacting via computer.
One insight from the NextAvenue article that we like is the discussion of new transportation options for non-driving seniors. “Today’s older adults can take part in activities and visit loved ones without having to depend on friends or family for a ride,” writes David Inns. He talks about the benefit to seniors of the growing number of ride-sharing services which he calls “an excellent option, particularly for those living at home.” One major national service, Lyft, “has several partnerships with health care companies, including care communities and providers, to make ride-sharing more accessible. With these services, older adults can schedule a ride through a brief phone call instead of through the app, eliminating technology barriers.”
In the end, we agree with the conclusion from NextAvenue: social isolation is preventable. “Making social engagement a priority early on will have a long-term impact on mental health and happiness,” writes David Inns. But in our view the responsibility (in most cases) to make certain this happens rests first and foremost with family and friends. If caring for an aging loved one demands some changes in your lifestyle, and you have the power to make those changes, then that may be a step you should consider taking. This is where a family conference under the guidance of the professional staff of AgingOptions can prove invaluable. When you and your family – aging parents and adult children – sit down and review your hopes, desires and fears about the aging process, you can create a family strategy to guide you when tough decisions arise in the future. Call us during the week and let us discuss a family conference with you.
For all other aspects of retirement we invite you to join us soon for a free seminar in which you’ll discover the power of an AgingOptions LifePlan. At these LifePlanning Seminars, you’ll gain a fresh new understanding of the need for a more comprehensive approach to retirement planning, one that combines financial, legal, medical, housing and family communication plans into one carefully crafted document – a blueprint to guide you as you enjoy a secure and fruitful retirement.
For dates, times, locations and online registration, simply click here, or contact us during the week and we’ll gladly assist you by phone. As we say at AgingOptions – “Age on!”
(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)