Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that elderly people are more likely to be moved into a care home after spending time with their families over the Christmas holiday than at any other time. The reason? Families who live at a distance tend to spend a longer time with their elders during the holidays. After a few days together, adult children notice issues with their parents' physical or mental health that may not have been obvious during shorter visits or from telephone conversations. Some of these changes are thought to be due to chronic loneliness which can sometimes be alleviated through more in-home personal care. In other cases, the opportunity to socialize in a care home may be better fit.
Elders in the U.S. face similar issues with loneliness. A study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry found that participants who reported feeling lonely were more likely to experience dementia than those who didn't feel lonely.
Dementia aside, a significant amount of research has shown that having a supportive social network is associated with positive health outcomes, both psychological and physical, while lacking such support can be harmful. Previous studies have also suggested that loneliness itself can kill people, generally by raising blood pressure and increasing risk for stroke or heart disease.
No matter how loving a family is, or how much help a program provides, most elders will feel the vulnerability of their aging bodies. They will likely miss their now deceased spouses and/or friends. They could become depressed because of chronic pain and/or the inability to do what they'd like.
Adult children can't change reality for their elders, and part of that reality is that growing older can lead to periods of loneliness. However, we can try to alleviate some of the loneliness. We can visit elders who are alone at home. We can offer to take them out if they'd like. Most importantly, we can ask our elders what they would enjoy that we can, in reality, provide.
No matter where we live, I hope that adult children will be alert to signs of loneliness in their elderly loved ones while respecting their independence as much as possible. Being alone and being lonely aren't at all the same, so knowledge of the elder's personality is necessary when care choices are considered.
Sometimes all that's needed is a listening ear, while other times a move to assisted living or even a nursing home may be the answer. Talk with your loved ones early and often so that you are sensitive to their feelings. In that way, you'll be more able to know what to do when help is needed.
Donnelly, L. (2013, December 2) Surge in numbers of elderly put in care homes after Christmas. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10486897/Surge-in-numbers-of-elderly-put-in-care-homes-after-Christmas.html
The Eldercare Locator is a free national service of the U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) that is administered by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a). Retrieved from