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Strategies to help seniors feel less isolated

Lala Roles, MD

People are social animals who need contact with others for their mental wellness. Without interaction, people can become lonely and depressed and experience physical health consequences. The pandemic has put seniors at particular risk of isolation. Fortunately, with a little ingenuity, friends and families can find ways to ease the situation for their loved ones. Many elderly individuals also have good options for staying engaged and connected.

Being alone is a problem

First, it’s important to recognize just how detrimental being alone is. In seniors, too much time alone can lead to a failure to thrive. Individuals may stop taking care of themselves, eating well, or managing their personal hygiene. They may withdraw and have issues with depression. They may also see some measurable health effects, such as trouble controlling their blood pressure or blood sugar.

Seniors who cut back on activities may not get the physical exercise they need to keep their muscles strong. For patients dealing with memory problems, less social engagement can lead to a cognitive decline. What’s more, isolated individuals are more at risk of elder abuse because there are fewer people to notice if they are being injured or taken advantage of.

Because there is wide variation in the age and well-being of the senior population, certain individuals may feel the effects of isolation more acutely than others.

Friends and families can help

No matter where the seniors are in terms of their health and living situation, it’s important for people in their circle to make sure they’re doing okay and to ease the burden of being alone. Many seniors are afraid to ask for help or need more support than they are willing to admit. Below are some ideas that can help seniors feel cared for:

  • Schedule a daily or weekly phone call the person can look forward to.
  • Drop a meal off once or several times a week.
  • Go grocery shopping so the person doesn’t have to go out in the stores.
  • Offer to walk a pet when the individual can’t.
  • Be pen pals and send things through the mail.
  • Let the person share their wisdom and feel valuable; set up video chats to transcribe family history or learn how to knit.
  • Leave care packages at the care facility or arrange for a window visit.
  • Engage with caregivers, asking them to facilitate video calls.
  • Order pictures through photo-printing sites and send them directly to the individual.

Seniors can try new things

Seniors can also take steps to care for their own mental health. Many individuals are comfortable with technology or are willing to learn, which can open up new possibilities for connection. For example, seniors can:

  • Take their hobbies online by linking up with virtual book clubs, quilting clubs, and more.
  • Learn how to video chat with friends and family.
  • Participate in pre-recorded or livestream exercise classes.
  • Play cards and board games online with people they know.

Simply seeing other people—even at a distance—can also improve mental resilience. Going on a walk and waving at the neighbors, watching kids play, seeing animals run, and enjoying the trees and the sky is a great way to pass the time. Engagement can still happen even when people are wearing a mask and staying 6 feet apart.

Depending on their health, some seniors may choose to form a small bubble so that they can socialize with others. However, as with any bubble, it’s critical that everyone agrees to forego interactions with people outside their group, wear a mask in public, and keep trips to indoor places, such as stores, to a bare minimum.

Dr. Lala Roles cares for older adults with complicated health conditions at Vancouver Clinic’s Vancouver Plaza Neighborhood Clinic. She enjoys being able to create tailored plans for each individual, taking into account their unique conditions, concerns, and hopes. She believes that the key to practicing medicine well is to really listen to the needs of patients.