What Does Isolation Sound Like?
“I don’t talk to many people.”
“All of my friends have moved or passed away.”
“It’s too hard to get anywhere. I’d rather stay home.”
“It gets pretty lonesome around here.”
“I don’t call because I don’t want to bother you.”
It’s easy to dismiss comments like these from an older adult as harmless — Grandpa making conversation, or perhaps complaining.
In truth, statements like these can often point to a serious problem: isolation.
Recognizing the Signs of Isolation
Family members and neighbors are often the first to notice the signs of isolation, but may not know how to interpret them — or what to do about them.
In part, that’s because there’s no one cause of isolation in older adults. The normal processes and transitions that can come with age — such as changing physical and brain health, untreated hearing or vision loss, difficulty walking, and challenging life events like loss of loved ones and retirement — also increase the risk for isolation. So does living alone. And since research shows that prolonged isolation can have a negative effect on health, especially for older adults, that’s a risk with significant consequences.
Although there are no visible “symptoms” of isolation, there are signals to watch for. In addition to statements like, “I don’t talk to many people” or “It’s too hard to get anywhere,” an isolated older adult may appear bored, disinterested and withdrawn. Their personal hygiene may fall off. You may notice poor eating and nutrition habits. In some cases, there may be obvious home disrepair, clutter or hoarding.
Talking About Isolation — and Social Connectedness
Some seniors may be isolated even if they don’t think they are. Others may be aware of their isolation but don’t feel comfortable talking about it.
So what should you do if you see signs of isolation?
Listening means more than just hearing the words an older adult has to say; it means tuning in to their concerns, their fears, their needs. It means giving them space to talk without rushing in to fix the problem — or, worse, dismissing it. For instance:
- “I don’t call because I don’t want to bother you” may really mean, “I’m afraid I’m not important to you.”
- An expression of anger or frustration — “This occupational therapy is stupid! I already know how to brush my teeth!” — may point to a fear of no longer being able to take care of themselves.
- “I don’t like the home care aide” may mean, “I feel like I no longer have control over my world.”
Apart from letting your senior loved one know you care, asking questions can bring issues to light, with the answers serving as a guide to finding solutions. Consider these questions:
- “I know it must be hard to not be able to drive anymore. How do you feel about it?”
- “You mentioned that you’re having trouble sleeping. Is something on your mind that’s keeping you awake?”
- “I’ve noticed that you’re not eating much. Is that because you’re not hungry, or is something upsetting you?”
- “It sounds like you’re pretty bored. What are some things you used to enjoy doing?”
- “What support could you use to help you deal with this problem?”
Help them stay connected.
Give seniors what they need to maintain connections with neighbors, family and friends. For example:
- Try to do things with your loved one, instead of for. Grocery shopping and errands with a senior might take a little more time, but they’re likely to appreciate the opportunity to get out and will benefit from staying active.
- Help them find new activities to get involved with. Senior centers, community centers, libraries, YMCAs and others offer a wide variety of activities geared toward older adults.
- Check out Connect2Affect’s database to find local programs and services, including volunteer opportunities and senior centers.
- Offer to provide (or pay for) transportation to the senior center or other social activities.
- Encourage them to volunteer for a hobby or a cause that’s important to them. Helping others restores a sense of purpose and value to seniors who may feel they have nothing left to offer.
- Take them for a vision and hearing test and make sure they talk with a health care professional about possible solutions to hearing or vision loss.
- Ask a trusted neighbor to look in on them if you can’t. Even a short visit can have mental health benefits.
- Teach them how to use technologies like Skype or FaceTime to stay in touch with loved ones who live far away.
By making sure your senior loved one feels valued, has a sense of purpose and gets out into the world, you can help ensure their continued health and quality of life.
Click here for more information and tips on helping seniors avoid isolation.