The kids walked by her apartment twice a day. She sat by the window every morning watching; remembering and sometimes wishing they might stop by some day. Every afternoon they would parade down the sidewalk again and every once in a while one of them would glance over to the window where she sat and perhaps offer a slight smile or wave. The kids never really thought much about the old woman in apartment 21; they just strolled by.
This same scenario is probably replicated in many towns and neighborhoods. In an earlier, less complicated time, neighbors all knew each other and didn’t hesitate to stop by unannounced for a brief visit with a covered dish or just spend a few minutes with their elderly neighbors to chat and pass the time. It’s not uncommon to read newspaper stories of elderly who have died and their bodies discovered months or even years later because there was no family or close friends to check in on them on a regular basis.
Whether living alone in their homes or in a nursing facility with many people around, social isolation and loneliness can happen and, research has shown, may be a risk for an early death. “Social contact is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The scientific evidence is that being socially isolated is probably bad for your health, and may lead to the development of serious illness and a reduced life span.” Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London.
With limited time and energy, caregivers often focus on the persons’ health, mobility issues, nutrition and other fundamental care, but emotional health is just as important to keep in mind and social isolation can cause serious health problems which can lead to devastating consequences.
A recent Harvard School of Public Health study published in The American Journal of Public Health suggests that “strong social ties, through friends, family and community groups can preserve our brain health as we age and that social isolation may be an important risk factor for cognitive decline in the elderly.” The study also indicated that those elderly engaged in many social contacts had the slowest rate of memory decline. Whether you are a senior yourself. you are a cargiver for a senior, or you know of a senior at risk for social isolation - remember the need for social interaction. Here are some tips to help get you started on increasing social activities for seniors:
- Learn a new skill – a new language or any type of brain game.
- Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or library.
- Connect with a nearby school to see about tutoring.
- Hospitals have great programs where folks can help by sitting and rocking the newborns.
- Connect with folks at church, arrange for weekly visits from their outreach committee.
- Form a group that makes regular visits to a local nursing home, not just at Christmas but throughout the year.
The idea is not to wither away and just be known as the old woman in apartment 21, but the woman we got to know, learned about and connected with!