Dr. Paul on what to do about your elder parent’s loneliness

As we live longer, older adults are increasingly at risk for isolation and depression. They need your help.

Joe’s wife died three years ago after a long illness. He’s 78, with his own set of health problems that make life difficult. Joe still lives in their large family home where he and his wife raised their two sons. His biggest challenge — loneliness.

His sons are worried about Joe. But they’re busy with their work, children and wives. There just isn’t enough family support to go around.

Like many men, Joe depended on his wife for their social life. Now that she’s gone, he has no idea how to meet and connect with other older adults. He feels sad, depressed and worried about the future.

As we live longer, with medical treatments that can extend our lives, older adults are increasingly at risk for isolation and depression. Their families want to help, but may be spread out across the country, and less available as they cope with the challenges of their own family life.

My grandmother came to live with my family when she developed health problems after her husband’s death. She had a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law, my mom, which made it possible. But that isn’t always the case.

Psyhcologist Julianne Hold-Lunstad conducted a landmark study that examined the health effects of loneliness and isolation. Evidence collected from 70 studies, involving 3.4 million people, showed an increased risk of early death — a 32% increase for those living alone.

Human beings, like our canine friends, are pack animals. From an evolutionary and biological perspective, we needed other people to increase our chances of survival as hunters and gatherers. In today’s world, we are less dependent on each other for daily survival — yet we are wired for social connection. Physically, emotionally and psychologically we need companionship to be whole.

It’s particularly difficult for older adults who were dependent on their spouses for their social world. These elders may not have the social skills necessary to forge new relationships. Old friends are also getting older and may have their own health problems.

So what can adult children do to help?

Encourage your elder to consider an independent-living arrangement. Independent-living facilities provide for separate apartments but offer group dining. Eating is a uniquely social activity for humans. Older adults eat better when they eat with others. Social and recreational activities are onsite, facilitating social connections.

Elders often resist changing their living situation. They want to age in their home, even if results in greater isolation. Persistent encouragement, visiting different living facilities, and making it easier for elderly parents can help.

My mother, at 90, didn’t want to move into an independent-living facility until I assured her that my brother and I would do all the work to help her move. She did, and she was very happy in her new home.

Go with your aging parent to a senior center. Joe wouldn’t go to the local senior center alone, but was willing to visit with his son. He was a big hit when he showed up! Once he felt more comfortable, he was willing to go on his own.

It takes a village. I had lunch every week for seven years with my friend’s mom, who was 92 when she came to live with my friend and his wife. My wife visits her 94-year old friend regularly. It’s up to each person’s social network to help their elders feel connected, included and engaged in the life of their community.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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