It can be difficult to find time to spend with an elderly parent or relative - a busy work schedule and distance are both common obstacles. However, it is important to ensure they don't suffer through a lack of social interaction. We look at ways you can help alleviate the loneliness of a loved one
Feeling lonely is something that can affect anyone of any age - and the effects can be devastating to both mental and physical health. Feelings of loneliness are not always directly a result of living alone, but if you have an elderly parent or another relative who is on their own and short on social interaction with others, then the effects can be extremely damaging.
A recent report by IoTUK compared the effect of loneliness on health as being similar to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and that it can increase an older person's likelihood of mortality by 26%. Elsewhere, Age UK has noted that the loneliness and isolation are associated with depression, sleep problems, impaired cognitive health, heightened vascular resistance, hypertension, psychological stress and mental health problems.
So how can you help? Here are some suggestions to consider.
It can be difficult to find time to spend with an elderly relative if you are busy at work, or have a heavily committed domestic schedule. Distance is always another factor: unless the person we have in mind lives nearby, it can be hard, if not impossible, to just pop-in for a few minutes, let alone spend an extended period of quality time.
However, if you or other family members or friends can make time to be with them, it can be a great comfort to them to know that someone does care enough and has not forgotten them. It's not just about showing up though, it's a great opportunity to ask if you can do anything to help while you are there, or to check how they are feeling. Sometimes, we all just want someone who will listen and your presence in person, giving them your attention can really enable that.
Pick up the phone
You may not be able to be there as much you - or they - would like. However, you can perhaps pick up the phone and make quick contact at a regular agreed time, or whenever you can. Taking a few minutes out of your day in between other things may seem incidental to you, but can make a world of difference to someone who has little other social interaction.
Get them connected
If visits are not easy to arrange, then do look at teaching them to use online communication and networking tools. This could any of a wide range of social and digital media - e.g. Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp or others. These all provide ways to connect, interact and communicate with family and friends, and can even provide an opportunity to find and reconnect with old friends with whom they may have lost contact over the years. Online forums can offer a new world of friendships by connecting people with shared interests. These relationships can flourish online or be the starting point for real-world meet-ups too.
Get them out there
Many cities and towns have senior centres and clubs that offer activities and excellent social opportunities. Encouraging your elderly loved one to join a group can be an effective way to stop loneliness and start a new pastime. It may be difficult to encourage someone who feels reticent about doing so, but whether it's starting something totally new, or following up on an existing interest, classes and courses that they attend can give a regular focal point in their week and social connections and a sense of belonging.
Joining a local health centre and taking part in physically active sessions may also improve physical health as well as mental wellbeing.
Get extra help
As the saying goes: 'many hands make light work'. But, by having a regular carer or household helper visit, it is also a great way to provide social interaction and personal attention, as well as ensuring that your elderly relative's daily and regular household needs can be taken care of. When you are juggling work and perhaps your own immediate-family life, it can help take a big load off your shoulders to know that there are continuity and reliable support coming from elsewhere.
Get everyone involved
Don't forget that being alone and being lonely are not the same thing, but lack of interaction with anyone can leave people isolated and impact their health badly. Whether it's paid help from a carer, or a cleaner who visits regularly, or other family, friends and neighbours, it's good to be aware of the overall schedule your elderly relative has so that you have an idea of who is visiting and when. This can help ensure that they are neither too isolated, nor too overwhelmed by visitors.
Get a pet
Could an animal companion provide a way to reduce their feelings of isolation and loneliness? Whether or not they had a pet in the past, sharing their home with a suitable creature - one that is either low-maintenance but in any case well-suited to their lifestyle and capability - could be a lovely way to provide companionship, and help reduce their sense of solitude. What's more, if they are up to owning a dog, there will be lots of opportunities to meet and talk to others when taking it for a walk: having a dog is always a conversation starter, and of course, the health benefits from the exercise are enormous.
Be supportive and patient
If someone admits to being lonely, do encourage and support them in every way you can. Offer your support and reassure them that things can improve and they may feel better. But do be patient and - despite the advice here - don't be too pushy about what you think they should do. You are trying to help, but when people are lonely, and particularly where there may be related poor mental health or physical health issues, it is not uncommon for them to feel irritable or misunderstood, or reject your ideas.