Whether Covid-19, distance, or just plain ole’ life, the reality of the social needs of older loved ones can be a complex one, especially given the recent pandemic. Visiting grandma on the weekends or taking a trip to see dad often stayed as wishes during the last two years rather than actualized plans. While work and family matters continued on, our older loved ones bore the brunt of the health crisis in more ways than one. One of these – loneliness – became a major reported detriment among seniors. Meeting the social-emotional needs of our elder loved ones should never have to be complex, and families should never have to worry about loneliness falling upon mom and dad. At Koru Health, this sentiment is more than just a mere promise, it is a priority supported by best practices and clinical evidence. Senior living should never be putting “mom in a home.” Rather, senior living should involve a place of support where loved ones can interact with others and continue to enjoy the love of their families. YOU are one of the biggest factors in determining the right care for your loved one. Such care should never guilt relatives or create a feeling of hopelessness. YOU want to make sure your loved ones continue to live fulfilling independent-minded lives. So just how do senior living communities prevent isolation and loneliness? As you will see below, no matter the practices and statistics, the one element that remains clear is that loneliness should never be just another side-effect of aging.
Know the Causes
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was a significant risk to the wellbeing of older adults. The lower frequency of social interactions and the fewer amount of relationships inherent with getting older place seniors at a disadvantage when compared to their younger counterparts.1 Loss, along with the moving away of adult children or other family members increase this risk. When loneliness befalls an older loved one, the risks to their wellbeing may become associated with a decline in mental faculties, depression, and even higher mortality.1
“But what are the actual signs that my loved one is lonely?”
Identifying the signs of loneliness can include both mental and physical factors. Many seniors prefer to hide their displeasure with their life from family. This can be due to the unwanted perception of feeling like a burden, or the natural effects of aging clashing with grandpa’s pride. Many older adults show dismay, and even fear, with being “put in a home,” as evidenced by the 60% who report wanting to age in their own home. Sociologists, basing much of their examinations of loneliness off Robert Weiss’ Theory of Loneliness,3 point to six main social needs which ward off loneliness: attachment (safe relationships), social integration (relationships with similar interests and concerns), nurturance (responsibility and care for another), reassurance of worth (relationships where skills and knowledge are appreciated), sense of reliable alliance (the feeling of being able to count on others), and guidance in stress (relationships that provide support and advice).4 What becomes clear, therefore, is the fact that relationships, and their absence, play a large role in preventing, and identifying, loneliness.
Each one of the social needs above diminishes with age. Keep in mind that for older adults living alone (about 27% of adults over 60 years old report living alone),5 due to the loss of a spouse or the moving away of family, have needs which are even harder to maintain. The very means to meet these needs diminish over time as well. Chronic illness? Grief? Medications? Perhaps even something like a PANDEMIC? All of these things keep seniors cooped up, and their relationships, no matter how many or how few, suffer the most. Yet all people are different, and since YOU know your older loved ones the best, consider these other signs if you feel they are experiencing isolation or loneliness:
Does your older loved one eat more than normal, or barely anything at all? Diet changes may point to coping mechanisms attempting to combat the “feelings of emptiness.”4 Food and emotions travel hand-in-hand; however, this dichotomy goes even deeper than you think. The change in diet may impact hormones released in the endocrine system, thus impacting mood and thoughts.
Are there more bags than usual under your loved one’s eyes? Quality sleep may lower in frequency when someone is feeling isolated or lonely. Alternatively, older lonely adults may spend more time in bed, although this does not mean they are getting good sleep. Insomnia can accompany the emotional fluctuations experienced during loneliness.
Have you noticed your loved one to be more irritable lately? Do bursts of anger accompany family visits more than they should? Older adults who experience a lapse in social needs and a lack of relationships may feel misunderstood, or even unnoticed. Arguments may spring up as older adults try to reaffirm their reassurance of worth or nurturance. For some, disengagement or reserved isolation become mechanisms to support their own perceptions.4 Erratic behavior, as minimal as spending more time on the internet to as alarming as major financial purchases, accompany older adults struggling with loneliness as well. The lack of support and advice, inherent with a loss of social needs, impacts such emotional fluctuations even more.
Know the Solutions
To maintain the social needs of seniors and combat loneliness, a number of solutions are available. While it may seem like a “duh” response, the easiest solution is to simply talk about it. Cutting through the independent nature of older adults can be difficult, yet being honest and open still remains the first step in addressing the struggle of loneliness. While pets, support groups, assessments (such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale),6 and even therapy can all assist with combating loneliness, there is a solution that encompasses most of these and much more: senior living communities. To support this claim, a comparison of senior living communities, such as those maintained by Koru Health, to the six social needs explained above must be made.
The Best Solution? Community.
When living in an independent or assisted living community, relationships that carry with them the feeling of safety and security (attachment) are in abundance. Many assisted living communities come complete with residences that include intimate common areas and social centers that facilitate social interactions. Considering that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists social interaction as one of the best armaments to fight loneliness,8 senior living communities offer a great atmosphere to take advantage of, and foster, meaningful relationships. Branching out further into relationships that support similar interests (social integration), senior living communities create individualized care plans that incorporate daily activities and programs, under the direction of a Program Director, which offer seniors the ability to pursue their hobbies with like-minded peers. From community rooms to beauty salons, grandma will find it hard not to strike up a conversation with a new face. Considering the chapels, designated social hours, and proximity to local nature preserves, senior living communities provide the ideal “hub” for family visits and interactions. Knowing that your loved one is in a safe environment, with their needs being met, allows them – and you – to enjoy the thing they love most, engaging with YOU (nurturance). When family leaves, the self-directed plans, daily activities, and dedicated community involvement all occur with an active and engaged lifestyle in mind. As you can see, senior living communities are not nursing homes. Instead of keeping an older adult inside a place of care, senior communities encourage, and in fact devote their entire ethos, around supporting the individual with the community (reassurance of worth). On-site directors and staff ensure a supportive environment that focuses on keeping older adults engaged, yet independent. Combined with close cooperation with nearby medical clinics, communities like those operated under Koru Health provide assisted living options, housekeeping, and individual care plans to ensure help and care (reliable alliance/guidance), no matter the situation.
With a focus on relationships and support, senior living communities provide the best solution against loneliness. Encompassing social interaction, individualized care, exercise, community events, routines, all revolved around a comfortable and independent home, senior living communities offer something that nothing else can: community-supported relationships. No matter what aging brings your loved one, remember that loneliness should never be just another side-effect of aging.