By SIMONA VALANCIUTE
If you’re the caretaker of a parent or other elderly relative, it can be challenging to convince your loved one to try something new. However, what you may perceive as stubbornness could be a sign they are experiencing social isolation, which poses serious risks to their health and wellbeing. Social distancing, while important to containing the coronavirus, may exacerbate their loneliness by taking away normal routines and activities, as well as physical contact and hugs from family and friends. It’s now more important than ever for caretakers to identify the signs of social isolation and help loved ones find ways to stay curious and engaged with the world virtually.
Social isolation occurs when a person withdraws and becomes disconnected from friends, family and their community. Multiple studies have shown social isolation is as bad for a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is even more harmful than obesity; it has also been linked to higher blood pressure, a lowered immune response and earlier onset of dementia.
Here are just a few ways an older parent or relative may show negative effects of social isolation:
Lack of interest in staying connected to the outside world, their hobbies or social activities they once enjoyed
Poor personal hygiene
Signs of poor nutrition, such as rapid weight gain or loss, or lack of appetite
Significant disrepair, clutter or hoarding behavior in their home
Having trouble sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
Declines in memory or information processing
If you’re thinking these sound a lot like the signs of depression, you’re correct: depression and social isolation often go hand-in-hand. As with depression, the solution for social isolation will differ from person to person, but staying active, socializing with others and focusing one’s mind on something else are the keys to combating both.
It can be difficult, though, to convince an older loved one to get outside their comfort zone, whether that’s embracing different ways of communicating through technology or trying new activities. There are a variety of reasons older adults may be reluctant to open their minds to new ways of doing things. Change is hard for people of any age, and seniors especially may rely on rigid ways of thinking to navigate a constantly changing world and feel good about themselves.
One healthy way to give seniors that self-esteem: help them learn a new skill, or at least experience a familiar activity in a new, virtual way. Doing so may allow them to socialize with new people and develop confidence as they improve.
Here are some ideas:
Go back to school. Multiple community colleges in the San Diego area offer online classes for seniors, and many are free. Organizations like San Diego Oasis, a national nonprofit that offers lifelong learning courses for seniors, offer dozens of free or low-cost courses in topics from art history, meditation, foreign language to telehealth and more. If your loved one speaks fondly of their college days, or has previously expressed curiosity about a certain subject, sign them up for an online class.
Get moving in the living room. Virtual fitness classes are everywhere now. Yoga studios and gyms are offering live streamed online classes or video workouts, but your loved one may feel that these are too “young” for them. If that’s the case, check out Silver Sneakers’ selection of home workout videos designed especially for people aged 65 and older. If you’re their primary caretaker and can still visit them at home, try a workout with them—it might get you two laughing, which is also good for your health!
Participate in religious services online. Seniors who regularly attend some kind of religious service or spiritual group can often live longer than their non-religious peers, particularly because it provides them with a strong social network. Encourage your loved one to attend services or meetings online, if possible, and help them get comfortable with the technology to do so. If your loved one misses a support group their faith community previously provided, encourage them to check out the free support groups available through San Diego Oasis.
Demystify technology. Many of the same colleges and nonprofit organizations offering academic or lifelong learning courses for seniors also teach practical skills workshops that help them use new technology. San Diego Oasis offers multiple virtual lessons, taught by our engaging, smart, and funny instructors, to help seniors master video chats with Zoom, figure out their smartphone and more.
You’ve probably heard many people say, “we’re all in this together.” For caretakers of seniors, this means not just looking out for your loved ones’ physical wellbeing, but also watching out for the signs of social isolation. Opening our minds to new experiences is the best way to stay mentally healthy and connected to community.
— Simona Valanciute is the president and CEO of San Diego Oasis, an award-winning nonprofit organization serving people age 50 and better, who pursue healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles, and community service. Learn more at sandiegooasis.org.