I was worried about Jim, an 86-year old man who lived alone. I’d been Jim’s care manager for two years, and usually checked on him weekly. However, our in-person visits had to stop due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now we stayed in touch by phone. Physically Jim was doing well, but emotionally, the social isolation due to lockdown restrictions was taking a toll on him.
“I really miss my friends,” Jim said sadly during our weekly call. “It’s been months I’ve played cards or gone out to eat. It’s boring at home and I have nobody to talk to other than you and when my son calls once in a while.” Jim’s son lived out of state and hadn’t seen his father for several months.
This concerned me because feeling lonely and isolated is more than an unpleasant emotional state; it can actually lead to illness. Recent studies suggest that loneliness is more damaging to a person’s mental and physical health than being obese or smoking cigarettes. Physiological changes triggered by loneliness increase the likelihood of depression, dementia, heart disease, immune system problems, and cancer.
The elderly are vulnerable to loneliness, and this has been exacerbated by COVID-19. While social distancing can help reduce the spread of the virus, this is an especially difficult time for older adults. They’re advised to stay home, can’t visit with their friends or family members, their normal routines have been disrupted, and there’s no clear end in sight.
I talked with Jim about staying in regular touch with his friends and using technology as much as possible. Jim had used FaceTime once or twice in the past, but had forgotten how to access it on his phone. I explained what to do, and had him test it out with me.
“Now I can see my granddaughters when we talk,” Jim said. “That makes me happy.” I also encouraged Jim to join some online groups he might be interested in, and try to stay as socially connected as possible during this challenging time.
Here are tips for friends and family members to help aging loved ones avoid isolation once social restrictions have been eased:
- Address the physical issues that can present barriers to socializing, such as hearing and vision problems and incontinence. The right treatments for these issues can greatly improve the person’s quality of life.
- Encourage participation in hobbies, activities and groups at senior centers, religious services if the person is religious, and volunteer work. Having a sense of purpose is important for emotional health at all ages.
- Investigate transportation options if the senior can no longer drive, such as Uber and Lyft.
- Consider paid or volunteer companion care.
Strong social ties go a long way toward a healthy life. If you’re concerned about a family member who is sheltering at home alone, give us a call.