Elder Loneliness Depends on a Senior's Personality

Carol Bradley Bursack | July 21, 2017

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Aging can bring unique joys, but for many it also brings the loss of physical and, for some, cognitive abilities that they feel once defined them. These losses can usually be absorbed if the elders stay connected to the greater community in some way and/or they enjoy engrossing hobbies. But many become isolated, either because they don’t feel like making the effort to stay connected or they lack the opportunity. Those who do become socially isolated will often succumb to disease or early death.

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Understand that being alone and loneliness are two different things

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For some people, time alone is an intrinsic need and they feel stressed if they are always among people. Other people can be in a marriage or living with family and still feel lonely. Therefore, adult children who seek to change their parents’ environments should understand their elders’ unique needs. Still, most people shouldn’t be left isolated for extended periods. Social interaction has been frequently touted as one way to maintain cognitive and physical health.

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With understanding, you can help your elder find a balance

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Once you’ve determined whether your elder’s alone time is self-chosen and healthy, or if it’s caused by depression, low energy because of physical problems, or lack of opportunity, you can begin to help your elder find a balance between healthy alone time and unhealthy isolation. A visit to their doctor may be in order to make a correct determination. Keep the focus on your elder’s needs by practicing non-intrusive observation over time.

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Many elders can use more social interaction than they have

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Situations that accompany aging such as loss of friends through illness or death, and loss of robust health, can contribute to isolation and loneliness as well as a sense that they lack a purpose in life. Elders’ unique personalities aside, you may be able to help them live healthier lives by gently encouraging a few options that may have seemed out of reach to them. Introduce ideas slowly, and listen to the emotional needs that may underlie their responses to your suggestions.

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Help provide a sense of purpose

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We all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Too much of one’s own company can contribute to a feeling of uselessness, which can then lead to depression and increased isolation that eventually spirals downward. If you can work with your elder to find out what would help him feel useful and necessary, you will have gone a long way toward breaking through the wall that he may have erected. Read on for some suggestions for providing this sense of purpose.

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Pets can provide that missing sense of purpose

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If an elder lives in her own apartment or home and would still be able to safely care for a small pet, take her on a trip to a local pet shelter (or several). Adopting a dog or cat, and then providing a home and the care necessary for an animal to thrive, can considerably revive an elder who feels lonely, depressed or useless. There will be a reason to get up in the morning because their pet needs them to do so.

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Choose a pet wisely

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If you feel that adopting a pet is feasible, help your elder choose wisely. A small pet is generally best. You must be aware of tripping hazards, frequent litter box changing or a convenient outdoor area, toys and other types of entertainment for the pet. More mature pets are generally better companions for elders than puppies and kittens since older pets have generally grown out of a young animal’s hyper-activity.

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A parakeet may be ideal

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My neighbor, Joe, loved to feed the birds in his yard so I took him to a pet store to choose a parakeet. We bought a cage, food, gravel, and toys and went home to set up. The pairing was love at first sight on both sides. Nutsie was at Joe’s bedside when Joe eventually died from the trauma of a broken hip. That bird would never understand how much he gave to Joe, but I saw the love. Having the bird around helped Joe gain important life quality during the years Nutsie lived with him.

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Robots to the rescue

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I have seen robotic birds, cats and puppies that are so lifelike that the elder does bond with them. For the most part, this works for cognitively impaired people for whom a living pet may be either unsafe or too challenging. Still, some robotic pets are so fascinating that even healthy elders (and younger folks) can become entranced. The good ones are expensive, but are definitely an option for providing a cuddly companion that can bring an elder back from the brink of despair.

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Pets not an option? There are other approaches

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Some people simply don’t like pets, are allergic to them, or for reasons of safety for either the pet or the senior, a pet is simply a poor idea. There are other options for helping the elder maintain a sense of purpose in life, mainly tied to getting out of the house.

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Consider transportation problems before making suggestions

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An elder may no longer be able to drive, or at least drive safely. The natural response to this loss of independence is to stay home. Even if adult children can offer rides, this arrangement may erode an elder’s sense of independence. A city’s Senior Commission (which may have a different name) is a likely resource for independent options. A local agency on aging could also help. If you can line up transportation, and help your senior become comfortable using it, everyone wins.

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While researching rides, research activities

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If your senior is healthy, look into the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)) or other volunteer options. If he is not up to volunteering because of physical or cognitive decline, attending activities at a local senior center can provide wonderful social interaction. If he is in need of significant assistance, try adult day services. Many of them provide bus pick-up and offer cooking classes, woodworking, Wii bowling, pool, card games and other activities.

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Assisted living may lengthen life of otherwise lonely seniors

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While many seniors will balk at the thought of any type of communal living, once they are settled in and have time to overcome the stress of change, most will enjoy the community. There are built-in opportunities to make friends simply by taking communal meals. Good assisted living facilities offer well-rounded activities within the center, as well as outings to interesting local activities, such as theater, music, shopping, and parks.

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One of the biggest mistakes we, as family members or caregivers, can make is to forget that each elders is unique. For some, a quiet life with a workshop, gardening, or books is a complete life. They are content. These seniors would not thrive by being constantly surrounded by people. Others are lonely, even if they insist that they want to be alone. Once you’ve determined the personality of your elder, you will be able to help improve his life in a way that that best suits his needs.