Doctor's Notes

doctor's notes

Antidotes to Loneliness

Gordon070703Ideas to help stave off isolation

By Dr. Michael Gordon

There is growing concern about the social isolation that can affect older people. While being alone does not necessarily translate into loneliness, it is hard to ignore research that suggests that those without active social connections may be at increased risk of health problems.

One reason for this is that such individuals are less likely to be encouraged by others to seek medical attention. Furthermore, isolation can in itself negatively affect both physical and mental health, and contribute to depression, cognitive decline and dementia.

Its ok, I’m fine
Certainly, there are some elderly people who like their privacy and independence. This is how my sister and I characterized our late father’s hermit-like behaviour after our mother died. Our father didn’t want to visit to his club or engage in activities he and my mother had enjoyed together. Then we noticed some cognitive dysfunction and a lack of self-care. Finally, he reluctantly agreed to “try” a period in a retirement home near my sister, and was suddenly telling his humorous stories and enjoying himself again. How our father went from being “Mr. Reluctant” to a proponent of congregate living is anyone’s guess.

A few antidotes to help
If you see signs of loneliness or withdrawal in your loved one, consider the following ideas. 1) Identify senior centres, support groups and meal-delivery programs that might help with your loved one’s connectivity. 2) Try visiting it helps not only well-being, but increases your loved one’s safety. 3) Make regular phone calls, send texts and stop by with other family members or pets. 4) Talk to your loved one about moving to an assisted living community. 5) Watch for nasty weather conditions that can make travelling more difficult, and find ways to lend a hand. 6) Find rideshares, look up public transportation routes or locate a reliable taxi service. 7) Encourage your loved one to volunteer or take a class. These can be rewarding ways to learn something new and meet people. 8) Suggest your loved one takes part in a group exercise program. These are a wonderfully effective way to reduce isolation and, of course, they have the added benefit of being great for physical and mental health. 9) For seniors with hearing loss, provide a hearing aid, or make sure it is being worn correctly and has working batteries. This can improve communication and participation.

Back to school
A review of studies looking at interventions for loneliness found that the most effective programs for combating isolation had an educational or training component for instance, classes on health-related topics, computer training or exercise classes. One final thought. Family caregivers are also at risk of social isolation as they set aside their own lives, social invitations and private time. If you can, find ways to have breaks and respite time so you can recharge.

Dr. Michael Gordon is Medical Program Director of Palliative Care at Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System.

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