Our friends at Helping Hands offer insight on how to spot if your elderly parent or relative is experiencing loneliness, along with ways you can help.
Some people find that their sleep patterns change markedly as they approach old age, perhaps because they are less active, don't have work responsibilities, or because a partner is no longer beside them. Changes in sleep pattern can also be linked to depression which itself could stem from long periods of loneliness. According to the Sleep Foundation, "People with depression may find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night or experience periods of excessive daytime sleepiness" while the National Institute for Health and Care Research tells us that "up to one in five cases of depression among older adults could be prevented by reducing loneliness."
While it's natural that many people find their appetite decreasing in older age, perhaps because of a change in their activity levels or due to medication side-effects, it's important that rapid weight loss or refusal to eat be reported to a medical professional. A decreasing appetite could also be as a result of depression, or because your parent always ate with their partner and miss the social side of mealtimes. If they live alone then perhaps work lunchtimes or dinners could be scheduled so that you or other family members can eat with them. If this isn't possible, you could also look into arranging for a neighbour, friend or a carer to prepare their lunch and give them some company in the middle of the day.
Using alcohol as a substance to numb painful feelings is understandable, but something that should be a concern in a lonely parent. While they may have always enjoyed the odd tipple, there is an obvious difference between that and using alcohol as a coping mechanism. While not wanting to criticise the lifestyle choices of our parents, it's important that we investigate why something may be happening, and if it becomes clear that an increase in alcohol consumption is because of feeling lonely, it's important to act accordingly.
While there is a definite link between loneliness and depression, we shouldn't presume that just because a parent changes their behaviour or acts differently towards us it is always because of depression. It could be that they have decided to make changes in their life and want to explore different ways of doing things, however if there is someone you suspect of having an undue influence on a loved one then it may be worth having a chat and making sure that they aren't feeling pressured to make change by someone else.
As we age, most of us find ourselves becoming tired more quickly than we used to and experiencing physical ailments such as aches or pains. Because of this, and especially if they're not getting good quality sleep, an elderly parent may find family gatherings or getting together with friends exhausting. This may tempt them to avoid such gatherings and decide to stay at home instead, however they will then miss out on a vital source of socialising and be at even greater risk of loneliness. Family members should take this into account when planning family events and ensure that a quiet space is provided where the elderly person can rest for a while if necessary.
Losing a sense of purpose once their family have grown and moved away can really dent a person's self-confidence, as can thinking about meeting new people after the death of a partner or close friend. It's not always because of a death either, perhaps members of a close circle of friends have one-by-one moved from the area to be closer to loved ones, leaving an elderly parent feeling vulnerable and without people of their own age nearby. Encouraging them to meet new people may be met with resistance because they feel they're "too old to start again" and a lack of confidence is making them believe they have nothing to offer anyone. However, by accompanying them to a day centre or community event an elderly parent may have the courage to get chatting to people with similar interests and will also appreciate the support they're receiving from their loved ones.
As our lives get busier and we seem to have less spare time every day that passes, we may inadvertently miss visits with elderly relatives due to unforeseen circumstances. Even if we manage to visit it could be that we're so focussed on catching up with phone messages or waiting for a phone call that we don't pick up on the obvious verbal or physical clues our loved one is exhibiting. Feeling stressed, impatient, or irritated with an elderly parent can be natural when the child is living with anxiety and a heavy schedule, yet this can make the parent feel as if they're not being listened to, and the child feeling that the parent 'doesn't understand' their life. This can lead to resentment on both sides, with the added danger of the parent feeling they're a 'burden' and consequently telling the child not to come and see them because 'I know how busy you are'. This will only make loneliness more likely though, so having a compromise such as no phone time during a visit, and the parent promising to limit their stories about people the child doesn't know for example, will mean quality exchanges that both will get more benefit from.
Expressions by a loved one of feeling suicidal or that 'the world would be better off' without them should never be ignored, as this is a clear sign that depression may have taken hold. This may have been caused by extended periods of loneliness and an inability to discuss how they're feeling with anyone close to them, and even if you have tried to talk to them about how they're feeling they may be resistant, feeling they'll be 'burdening' you. Encouraging them to speak to their GP or practice nurse could help, or if they're reluctant, charities such as Age Concern or The Samaritans have helplines that could support both them and you. Age UK also offer a befriending service, where a volunteer can telephone or visit your elderly parent to help counteract loneliness.
Trying to make ourselves feel better through spending money isn't unique to older people; after all they call it 'retail therapy' for a reason. Sometimes though spending money can get out of hand, especially if someone is living beyond their means and leaving themselves without money for essentials such as food or heating. While all adults with mental capacity have the right to make their own decisions about what they spend their money on, family can be understandably concerned if they feel their parent is making unwise financial decisions. There is also the danger that because of loneliness, they have been left vulnerable to the attentions of people who will try and take their money from them. Having a chat with them about excessive spending, or a reluctance to spend money on essential items, can also be down to deteriorating mental health, or the onset of dementia. In these circumstances, expert help via Age UK, the Alzheimer's Society, or a medical professional will give you helpful advice on how to broach the subject with your loved one.
If your elderly parent usually calls you frequently, or you call them but they're always very receptive, any changes will naturally cause you concern. When someone is feeling lonely or depressed, they may well pull away from social interaction, which often compounds the situation even more. There could also be another reason, such as them thinking you're busy and not wanting to interrupt your day, or perhaps they have reduced the number of calls they're making in general over worries about call costs. It's important to reassure them that you welcome their calls and they're not bothering you, or if they are calling at awkward times, such as when you're working, explain that you'll call them back as soon as you're free. When we're juggling several things at once it can be easy to let things slip and forget to do what we've said we will, yet if your elderly parent is eagerly looking forward to your call and you don't call back, it'll make them feel even more superfluous and unvalued.
With over 30 years' experience providing individually tailored home care across England and Wales, Helping Hands offer expert support at home ranging from 30-minute visits up to full-time live-in care. And if you need fast-response support, Helping Hands can often begin your bespoke care plan within 24 hours of your initial enquiry.
For more information, please call 0808 163 9755 or visit www.helpinghands.co.uk