Experts studying the phenomenon of elderly loneliness do not agree on the definition of “loneliness.” In both practice and research, the terms “social isolation” and “loneliness” are often used interchangeably. However, the terms have different meanings. “Social isolation” is “the objective absence or paucity of contacts and interactions between an older person and a social network,” while “loneliness” or “emotional isolation” means “the subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship.” Also, some older people prefer to be alone and suffer no harm from it.
Given those distinct definitions and the preferences of some elderly individuals, a socially connected elderly person could be lonely while a socially isolated elderly person might not be a bit lonely. That may seem like a petty point; however, the interchangeable use of those definitions in studies about the elderly has made it very difficult to adequately sort and evaluate the data about social isolation and loneliness and the effectiveness of preventive measures.
Despite the unfortunate melding of “social isolation” and “loneliness” in studies about the elderly, experts certainly have offered a number of preventive measures and solutions. The suggestions are presented here in no particular order of importance.
First, transportation should be made available for the elderly, both through the family offering rides and assisting the elderly in using public transportation and through society providing dependable public transportation with special options for the elderly.
Secondly, people dealing with the elderly should promote a sense of purpose for them. Encouraging an elderly person to volunteer his/her special gifts to the community and/or pursue his/her special interests, hobbies and social events provided by a local senior center can enhance his/her sense of self-esteem and wellbeing.
Third, encouraging an elderly person who is already interested in religious observances to continue participating in those observances will help him/her keep connected and purposeful while allowing other church members to watch for any signs of physical or mental decline in that person.
Fourth, if the elderly person is so inclined, he/she will be helped by nurturing a pet or plant; consequently, providing a pet or plant for an elderly person may help stave off loneliness.
Fifth, encouraging a positive body image in an elderly person who may avoid social interaction due to self-consciousness about his/her appearance can help the person to stop worrying about his/her appearance and interact with others.
Sixth, the elderly should be encouraged and assisted in obtaining tests of their hearing and vision and with remedying any such problems, as difficulties with sight and vision can discourage individuals from interacting with others.
Seventh, the elderly should be encouraged and assisted in obtaining and using “adaptive technologies” such as canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Age-related physical difficulties in movement may hamper an elderly person’s ability or wish to interact with others; consequently, an elderly person should be encouraged and assisted in obtaining assistance with physical movements to make social interactions easier for them.
Eighth, trustworthy neighbors should be notified about an elderly person and his/her special issues so they can casually keep an eye out for him/her and notice if something seems amiss; otherwise, the elderly person may be suffering without anyone noticing. The neighbors can periodically check on the elderly person by simply observing his/her residence, face-to-face, online or by telephone.
Ninth, an elderly person should be encouraged and assisted in eating with other people, individually, with a group and at the local senior center. Eating is deemed a “profoundly social urge” and can also promote healthier nutrition for an elderly person.
Tenth, an elderly person should be assisted with any incontinence issues, which might otherwise make him/her hesitant to leave home and socially engage with others. The assistance can consist of medications and/or incontinence supplies.
Eleventh, platonic touching like hugging and hand-holding can help lower stress and increase wellbeing for an elderly person. One should be mindful of the amount and type of touching that is comfortable for the elderly individual, who might be comfortable only with a hug when saying hello or goodbye.
Twelfth, special attention should be given to an elderly person who has recently lost a spouse because that loss can mean profound changes in the person’s life. Taking special care to interact with a recent widow or widower will assist him/her to grieve in a healthier process than would isolation.
Thirteenth, local public health professionals should be made aware of an elderly person and his/her special needs, so the community services can be used to notice and address signs of loneliness and elderly decline. Professionals can periodically check on the elderly person by simply observing his/her residence, face-to-face, online or by telephone. Awareness of the elderly through their telephones is particularly widespread in systems such as “Lifeline,” for example. This allows the elderly person to wear a device or call professionals to alert them of any emergencies and is also used by professionals to check on the elderly individual on a regular basis.
Fourteenth, one can help an elderly person’s caregiver with breaks and self-care, so the caregiver will not also be isolated and harmed. This will help both the caregiver and the elderly individual avoid problems associated with isolation and loneliness. Melding social isolation and loneliness together, experts have offered a number of solutions, used in combination, to prevent social isolation and loneliness for the elderly.
DO’S AND DON’TS
DO make transportation available.
DO promote a sense of purpose.
DO encourage an elderly person who is already interested in religious observances to continue participating in those observances.
DO provide a pet or plant, if the elderly person is so inclined.
DO encourage a positive body image in an elderly person.
DO encourage an elderly person to obtain tests of their hearing and vision and remedy any problems.
DO encourage and assist an elderly person in obtaining and using “adaptive technologies” such as canes, walkers and wheelchairs.
DO notify trustworthy neighbors about an elderly person and his/her special issues.
DO encourage and assist an elderly person in eating with other people, individually, with a group and at the local senior center.
DO assist an elderly person with any incontinence issues.
DO platonically touch an elderly person by hugging and hand-holding.
DO give special attention to an elderly person who has recently lost a spouse.
DO make local public health professionals aware of an elderly person and his/her special needs.
DO help an elderly person’s caregiver with breaks and self-care, so the caregiver will not also be isolated and harmed.
By Kathy Catanzarite
Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.
ELDER CARE/NURSING HOME ABUSE DOS AND DON'TS