Social isolation can often pose serious health threats to the senior population, and it’s more common than most people may think. It’s important to foster an environment where seniors can stay socially engaged as they get older.
Here are some ways to promote social health, connectedness and help seniors avoid social isolation
1. Help them realize a sense of purpose
Perhaps more than anything, it’s important for seniors to have a sense of purpose. There’s no one activity that stands above the rest, but a wide variety of hobbies will help encourage seniors to be more socially active and less isolated. Even things as simple as a club that meets several times a week to play cards or taking up a hobby can have a positive impact. Similarly, volunteering can not only help seniors stay socially active but it can also fill them with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
2. Give them the responsibility of caring for a pet or a plant
A growing amount of research suggests that seniors may be able to enjoy better physical and mental health by taking care of a four-legged friend. Seniors who own pets often enjoy lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as increased opportunities for socialization with other pet owners. The act of nurturing has been known to have a positive impact on an individual experiencing loneliness. Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression or loneliness and are more secure and motivated. It is, however, necessary that you ensure your loved one is physically and mentally able to care for a pet. Just like pets, plants can also make great gifts for seniors, as gardening and nurturing plants can help them relieve the feelings or signs of social isolation.
3. Make transportation available
Lack of adequate transportation can be a primary cause of a social isolation. Because many seniors do not drive, this is a big issue for them, so anything that helps seniors get around and make independent choices about travel promotes their social health. Family members can help, by offering rides to older loved ones and helping them to learn to use public transportation will help them maintain social connections and a healthy sense of independence.
4. Turn to technology
Social media has become a part of everyday life for nearly every generation, and that is no different for the senior population. But while social media use is increasing among the senior population, is it good for their health? A study from experts at the University of Arizona seems to suggest yes. Researchers found that older adults who were taught how to use Face book performed 25 percent better on cognitive tests after the study had run its course compared to exams taken at the beginning. Perhaps most of all, social media can help seniors stay in touch family members and friends who may live hours away.
5. Encourage them to dine with others
Eating a meal with others can be considered a social activity, as it provides an individual with the opportunity to engage in social interactions. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expressing of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers. Encourage seniors to share a meal with others whenever possible. Dining with others is also likely to help promote better nutrition, which is crucial for the elderly.
6. Give extra support to seniors who have recently lost a spouse
Older adults may be at highest risk for becoming socially isolated during the period after a spouse has passed away. When you’ve shared your life with a beloved spouse and companion for decades, it can be like losing the foundation of your existence when that person dies. For this reason, it’s important to provide extra emotional and social support. Do more than bring flowers; go the extra mile and spend more time with the senior in the days and weeks following his or her loss. This can make all the difference for the bereaved senior’s well-being, and it helps to encourage a healthy grieving process rather than a spiral into prolonged depression and isolation.
7. Encourage Religious Seniors to maintain attendance at their places of worship
For seniors who visit their places of worship, this social connection has been shown to be quite beneficial. They not only benefit from the social interaction and sense of purpose that daily worship provides, but they also benefit from the watchful eye of other people who are likely to recognize a decline in an isolated senior that may have gone unnoticed otherwise.
8. Encourage a positive body image
Individuals with a poor body image attributable to being overweight may decrease or cease interactions with their social networks to the point where they could be at risk for social isolation. For example, individuals who are overweight may be self-conscious or embarrassed, and, therefore, less likely to engage in their social networks. Compliments and positive comments can go a long way to boosting the self-esteem of seniors. Similarly, discouraging seniors from fretting over their appearance or catastrophizing the cosmetic effects of aging may help them avoid becoming self-conscious to the point that they avoid social interactions. For seniors who are genuinely overweight, addressing the root problem by encouraging weight loss through healthy eating and exercise can be helpful too, but always be positive and sensitive in efforts to encourage older loved ones to lose weight.
9. Encourage hearing and vision tests
Seniors with undiagnosed or untreated hearing problems may avoid social situations because of embarrassment and difficulty communicating. Encourage seniors to have their hearing checked and hearing problems treated. A hearing aid may be the only barrier between a senior and better social health. Vision tests are important too as sight problems.
10. Address incontinence issues
For obvious reasons, a senior who experiences incontinence may be hesitant to leave their home and could become isolated. When family caregivers and health professionals make sure that incontinence issues are appropriately addresses, for example through medications and incontinence supplies, incontinent seniors can have a better opportunity to recognize their social potentials and live life without embarrassment and fear of going into public.
11. Make adaptive technologies available
Adaptive technologies, ranging from walkers to the above mentioned hearing aids, help seniors to compensate for age related deficits and deficiencies that can impede social interaction. Many seniors do not take full advantage of these devices. Sometimes they may be embarrassed because they don’t want to look or feel old. In other cases, the device may be overly expensive and not covered by insurance. Both as a society and in our own families we can encourage and facilitate the use of adaptive aids that make it possible for seniors to have active and involved social lives.
12. Give a Hug
There’s nothing like a hug from grandma. And research has shown that friendly platonic touching from friends and family, like hand holding or hugging, can lower stress and promote feelings of well-being. On the other hand, people deprived of touch can experience decreased well-being. So even if you or your older relatives are not the touchy-feely types, at the very least weave a friendly hug into your greetings and farewells.