Reducing Social Isolation in Seniors

When a person retires from a lifelong career where he has formed friendships or strong social networks with colleagues and clients, he often neglects to proactively replace those networks. While some retired seniors plan to use the abundance of time that comes with retirement for travel and opportunities to reconnect with friends and family in ways they were unable to while working, a higher number settle into a more sedentary lifestyle that severely limits social connections. If health issues surface, as they often do, the social isolation only gets worse and can create a vicious cycle that exacerbates these health issues. Some experience isolation because they are no longer able to drive, and sometimes close friends and neighbors are experiencing their own health issues and move away to be closer to family or move into a retirement community. Caregivers can also experience social isolation as a result of their role, which can prevent them from leaving the home as often as they used to. Regardless of the reason, the results of social isolation can be extremely detrimental to emotional and even physical health.

Social isolation has been linked to increased depression, declining mental and physical health, and according to Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, a mortality rate more than three times higher than the national average. Another aspect of social isolation just beginning to be studied is that those who have little interaction with others have no one to observe and comment on their outward signs of declining health. According to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, those who are socially isolated often go longer before seeking medical attention for issues that may have the potential to be treated more successfully with early intervention.

It is important that professionals and family members are aware of not only the risks of social isolation, but of the options that exist to help increase seniors’ engagement.

Senior Centers

Most communities have a number of senior-related activities going on throughout the week, usually at a senior center or the local community center. Senior centers typically offer exercise classes, bridge clubs, computer training, and organized outings to museums, plays, and historical sites. Many offer group meals, which can be a great way to meet and stay engaged with peers. It is sometimes helpful for a family member to offer to go with the senior to the senior center for a meal or activity the first time to help her learn her way around, and even help initiate some of the connections. The local Area Agency on Aging is a great place to find out about senior activities in each community. If transportation is an issue, make sure the senior knows that she can ask the senior center if there is a regular transportation provider for special events. There are often door-to-door bus services available for seniors, particularly for group meal events and special activities.

Volunteering

Another great way to help a senior combat social isolation is to encourage some kind of volunteer activity. We all need to feel like we are contributing, and volunteering is a great way to do that. Start with the things that the individual likes doing or is skilled at. Does she like to sew or knit? Maybe she could join a club that makes blankets for local hospitals. Does he enjoy spending time with children? Maybe becoming a volunteer at the local library or elementary school would enrich his life. There are organizations that specifically connect senior volunteers to the places where their services are needed, like the Senior Corps, also known as the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

Groups and Clubs

Many seniors resist living in retirement communities or attending activities at senior centers because they prefer to socialize with a mixed group of ages. Some great suggestions for them to investigate are hiking clubs, walking groups, historical societies, wine clubs, or anything that they’re interested in. Meetup.com is a great resource, with groups getting together every day of the week and ranging in focus from spiritual activities and discussion groups to board games and hiking.

Increased Family Time

You should also suggest that, if possible, the family make a concerted effort to plan activities and visits with their loved one after a change that could potentially lead to social isolation. When someone retires, becomes ill, or loses the ability to drive, families might consider picking up the slack in a senior’s social calendar by committing to regular visits. Even the younger kids in a family like to feel like they are contributing, so scheduling special time when they can demonstrate their latest science project or presentation, or practice reading with Grandma or Grandpa can be beneficial for everyone.

Technology

More and more families and communities are turning to technology to help combat social isolation. There are a number of ways that technology can help seniors reengage with their friends from the past, friends and family who live far away, and even their local community and the world around them. It’s often just a matter of making them aware of the tools and providing the resources and basic education on how to access them. A recent program initiated by the AARP validates this theory, citing story after story of seniors whose lives have been enhanced because they learned how to use social networking tools to reconnect with the world around them. Some things that the rest of us take for granted, like Facebook, can open up a world where an isolated senior can connect with children and grandchildren no matter where she lives.

Even residents of senior communities, such as independent living communities, assisted living communities, and nursing homes can become socially isolated and could benefit greatly from your advice and encouragement. Being surrounded by people does not necessarily mean that you’re surrounded by people with whom you share interests. Just being of a certain age and living in the same building is not enough of a commonality to guarantee the formation of a bond that can lead to strong social connections. In an effort to help existing residents and attract new residents, more and more senior living communities are investing in Internet and computer systems that help their residents stay connected with friends and loved ones.

Here are some other examples of how technology helps seniors overcome social isolation.

Veterans Connecting

Military veterans can reconnect with others who served in the same branch or even in the same war. Websites like VetFriends.com and the Military.com locator help connect veterans who have registered on the sites and are interested in connecting with other veterans. Other government military services have phone numbers where veterans can register and inquire about fellow soldiers from their unit or branch.

Tablets and Touch Screen Computers

One great thing to introduce your senior patients to is the growing number of companies now providing computer systems, particularly tablets, that have been specifically designed to simplify access to social networking tools for seniors. Prices vary from around $400 for an In-touch senior tablet to $1200 for the Telikin touch screen system. These systems vary but often include a touch screen, icon-based platform with simplified e-mail, direct links to common social networking sites, and easy access to calling or video conferencing with family members. Some even offer enhanced features like games, health education, and physical or brain exercise programs.

Internet

One of the potential barriers to using a computer or tablet for social engagement is that all of the platforms like Facebook and Instagram are Web based and work best with a high-speed Internet connection. According to a Pew Research Internet Project, seniors are still the largest segment of the US population without an Internet connection at home. You could encourage family members who see the value in having their senior parents or grandparents stay connected to consider making the arrangements or even paying for the Internet connection. Doing so could pay dividends in improved quality of life and increased sense of purpose and connection for the senior. A recent article in the Journals of Gerontology indicates that Internet use has been shown to reduce the probability of depression by 33 percent. Another study demonstrates that Web-savvy seniors are more likely to live a lifestyle that includes behaviors that have been proven to reduce the risk of cancer.

Smartphones

Smartphones can be a good option for seniors who do not have high-speed Internet access in their home to stay connected. With the ever-increasing screen size on phones, even seniors with some visual acuity issues can use the larger-sized smartphones to view pictures or even have video chats with family members or friends. A good way to help families who want to encourage ongoing communication and engagement across all generations is to suggest they consider adding the senior to their family cell phone plans for a small monthly addition to their bill — the dividends can pay off in increased joy for both sides. There are limited smartphone options designed specifically for seniors (for example, the Jitterbug), but even the iPhone and Galaxy S3 can be good options if a savvy family member, neighbor, or volunteer is available to set the phone up and provide some simple instructions. Another option that is relatively new to the market, the “phablet” — or phone/tablet hybrid — could be a great solution for a senior who is not able to easily see a small three-and-a-half inch smartphone screen or who does not have a high-speed Internet connection at home. The phablet has a much larger screen size, with options ranging from over four inches to five and a half inches.

Video Conferencing

Skype and FaceTime can open up a whole new world to someone who has not been able to see her grandchildren or great-grandchildren on a regular basis. Whether the chat times are scheduled on a regular basis or just used to share special events like Christmas gift opening, birthday celebrations, or Easter egg hunts, seniors are often initially fascinated by and eventually fall in love with this new way to stay more involved in the lives of their loved ones.

Picture Sharing

While some seniors may be intimidated by many of the fast-moving photo-sharing sites like Instagram or Photobucket, they truly enjoy receiving pictures from family on a regular basis. Often, however, old-fashioned hard-copy pictures are hard for many people to send on a regular basis. One way families can be encouraged to share photos is through a simple digital photo frame that’s connected to the Internet. The family can upload photos that the senior will be able to view right in his frame. It is important to have at least one person in the family committed to updating the pictures regularly, so the senior knows to look for new ones.

Video Sharing

YouTube offers the ability to set up a private channel, and this can be a great way for families to share videos with a senior relative who has Internet access on her smartphone, tablet, or computer. Talk to the family about setting up a family YouTube channel and saving it as a favorite or bookmark on the senior’s device. Tech-savvy family members can make sure that videos are uploaded on a regular basis or that the senior is notified when new videos are available to view. Seeing highlights from a granddaughter’s soccer game, a grandson’s prom king ceremony, or the first steps of a new great-grandchild is something a senior can enjoy over and over and help her feel more connected to family who live far away.

Help families of your patients know that, with a little creativity and training, they can help their senior relatives find new ways to get engaged and live healthier lives by reducing social isolation.

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