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Lonely elders at risk for health problems

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Numerous studies show that humans are social creatures and too much isolation can have a negative effect on mental and physical health. Lonely elders are abundant in our society. Though we may not always succeed, we caregivers need to do what we can to encourage them to get out and socialize.

Most of us know at least one elder who insists that life is fine though he sits in front of the television for the greater part of each day and barely eats. Yet this person maintains that going out is too much trouble and having people in just doesn't make sense. For some, this becomes a real sickness called agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving one's home. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I am a person who, by nature, needs a great deal of alone time. I am a homebody who reads for relaxation. So, I do feel rather sympathetic toward these folks. However, I also know that I need social contacts and so do these elders.

Aging elders need to be active

Many studies have shown that people of all ages need an active social life. If we don't get that, we can become withdrawn and prone to depression. Add to that the fact that older people tend to have more health problems which, in turn, make them prefer staying home, plus transportation problems that make getting around hard, and it's easy to see how elders can become withdrawn. Also, many of these people always went places with a spouse, so it seems unnatural for them to go out alone.

It's a fact that it is sometimes easier just to sit and vegetate. But it's not healthy. How do we convince an aging parent that the senior group downtown is actually a fun place to go? How do we convince him that assisted living could be the greatest move he ever made? It's hard. Many aging folks look at other elders and think, "I don't want to be with all those old people." I heard that from my mother. It's human to think we're not that bad. It's human to think we're not that old. So, they isolate.

There's a mental chasm to drag one's elder across before he will admit that there is a better way to spend life than alone in front of a television.

Tips to improve elder socialization

First, let me warn you that sometimes, no matter how hard a caregiver tries, the elder won't budge. Sometimes we fail. Elders, as long as they are mentally competent, have a right to make their own decisions. Accept upfront the fact you may not convince Dad that there is a better way.

However, you can try.

1. Investigate local aging services, such as adult day care

If Dad is fairly healthy mentally and physically, check with your local aging services. If he no longer drives, find transportation--many of them have a senior van. These places provide nourishing meals, games and companionship. Did dad like to play pool? Maybe they do that at the senior center. Perhaps he likes poker. See what is offered so you can try to excite him.

Another way around this can be to appeal to his altruistic side. "These people need you," you tell him. Get him to think he's volunteering to help others. That's not a ruse, as there are volunteer opportunities for elders, and it could be the fact that Dad now feels useless that is causing his isolating behavior.

2. Be diligent and do your research

Do your homework and look for facts, then present them. Leave literature around the house and drop hints when you visit. Gradually, you maybe can introduce the idea that if he made the move to assisted living, he could have friends around whenever he wanted. He could have good meals by just walking down the hall.

I'm not sure that presenting him with studies that socialization may help prevent Alzheimer's may work, but if he is a fairly healthy guy, it may. A quick Internet search can turn up any number of studies but Socialization May Help to Avoid Alzheimer's is a good one to try. Much depends on his age and mental capacity.

3. Don't force the issue

Mainly, I'd advise that you don't force the issue unless there is actual danger, such as deep depression. In that case you need to get him to a doctor for treatment. But if it's simply that he's "sitting around growing old," then you can proceed slowly. Do what you can to make him want to do something. Find an old friend of his who enjoys the seniors club. Do some digging to see if any of his friends live at an area assisted living center. Try to get the juices flowing by slowly showing him that there are options. Along the way, you can be brutally frank about his health risks if he isolates too much.

Let him know that it's been repeatedly proven that physical and mental health decline rapidly when people isolate. Then let him choose. If he refuses today, leave him alone. Try again in a few weeks. Maybe, with enough options presented to him, he'll decide it's his idea and he'll get moving.

If he still refuses? You've done your best. Try to get Meals-on-Wheels to deliver lunch if he will allow that. Maybe hire an in-home care agency to come in for a couple of hours a week. They can offer companionship. In the end, though, it's his choice.

At least you will know you tried.