Avoiding isolation and loneliness

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of social interaction and friendships in maintaining health and well-being in later life.

What can we do to prevent isolation in our older years?  Here are some suggestions

  • As boomers, we can look at our housing options for aging, and choose to live in a place that has easy access to social activities. A gerontologist has described much of the housing in the US as “Peter Pan houses” – built for people who will never grow old, and in places  (suburbia) where one needs a car to go anyplace.  This alone leads to isolation or dependency on others for transportation when one can no longer drive, and can limit the number of friends who will be able to visit you as they age. Some research shows that residents of retirement communities or senior living facilities experience significantly less loneliness than other who stayed in their own homes. Another option is shared housing, Golden Girls style.
  • Replace friends you have lost; seek younger friends. Engage in social activities, volunteer to be with other people.  Men especially are vulnerable to loss of work friendships when they retire. (More about this in another post).
  • Make a plan for your retirement life. Start by asking yourself what will give you meaning and purpose.  Then pursue activities that will fulfill that plan, starting even before you retire.  In those activities, you will meet others who share your purpose, and with whom you can build lasting relationships.

How can we help others who are isolated and lonely?

  • We can help others – our family members or neighbors – by checking in with them. Just a phone call every day to see if our neighbor or friend is OK is reassuring.  Or, go further by making regular visits.
  • The flip side of this is to encourage the home-bound senior to initiate check-in calls to others. This not only provides social contact, it can give meaning and purpose to the home-bound person. The local senior center, office on aging or house of worship can give you names of people who would be happy to receive calls.
  • Health care providers and social workers need to be not only checking on their clients’ social networks, but have a network to connect them to others- to activities and services in the community. I was discussing a news story with one of our Senior Center social workers about an elderly person who had died and not found for some time.  Her response – “that is a social worker’s worst nightmare.”
  • Some articles have discussed using technology – email, social media or Skype as a means of combating isolation and loneliness in home-bound seniors. This can work if the senior has the technical skills to use the technology, and can afford it.  However, he or she will probably need assistance in setting up the system, and training in using it, not to mention encouragement along the way.  Getting used to something new can be quite difficult in older years.

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