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May 30, 2019

How to Combat Elderly Loneliness and Isolation

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines isolation as “the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others; apart from others.”

Isolation wears many masks, has many causes, and the consequences are frequently and chronically destructive.  The negative results of isolation within all age groups of the United States society are becoming recognized as a growing social, medical and economic problem of unrealized proportion.  Isolation can increase the risks of mental health issues such as depression, dementia, social anxiety and low self esteem.  Awareness is increasing, and one can really impact one’s sphere of influence by becoming better informed.

Teen isolation and the dire consequences including suicide have been recognized by many Central Indiana communities.  For example, the City of Fishers recognizes teen suicide as a major public health issue.  Fishers has publicly taken steps (including allocating budget dollars) to help teachers, first responders, faith communities, families and others to recognize the need to understand, prevent and respond to the threat of teen suicide.  Digging deeper into the problem, doctors and social workers find that the kids frequently experienced loneliness and isolation.

If a news outlet has a choice between covering teen suicide or adult senior isolation, which one would probably get the nod for coverage?  Of course, the teens would win out.  I have no argument with that priority.  I agree that the teen issue is critical and deserving of even more support.   But many in Hamilton County have recognized a real and devastating issue of isolation among the 55+ community.  For too long it has been a topic that received little interest in light of all the other issues that demand our attention.  This situation has changed and continues to do so.

Organizations such as Shepherds Center of Hamilton County (shepherscenterofhamiltoncounty.org)  bring a laser like focus on isolation in the Hamilton County 55+ community with its 30% growth over last year.  A staff of 6 highly experienced, educated, compassionate and motivated women step into the lives of the isolated senior.  They lead volunteers who freely gave over 3,375 hours last year to impact lives of Hamilton County seniors.

In addition to Fishers, the cities of Carmel, Westfield and Noblesville have recognized the issue and taken steps to begin making their communities more responsive to the issue of senior isolation.

Faith communities such as Grace Church, Noblesville Nazarene Church, CrossRoads Church of Westfield, and Christ the Savior Lutheran Church recognize the seriousness of isolation by donating their facilities to create spaces for seniors to come together to build friendships and communities that mutually enrich their lives.  Spicewood Garden Apartments – HAND also make their space available.

If you are interested, we can chat more about how communities are involved in unmasking senior isolation.

Some of you are probably gasping for numbers.  You are asking, “How big is this problem?”  “Are you just making a big deal out of nothing?”  “Is this more hype?”  Consider the following and then reach your own conclusion.

The Hamilton County 65+ community has a population of approximately 35,000.  This is up 13% from the prior year.  Shepherds Community of Hamilton County estimates 40% of all Hamilton County seniors live in isolation.  No one is calling to challenge them on these numbers.

I have been volunteering with Shepherds Community for 3 years.  Typically, I am involved with Board member Jan Clark who plays an awesome role of hostess to the Monday Together Today gathering of seniors at Grace Church.  I have made many new friends through this volunteer experience. Typically, we have a light breakfast followed by a spirited time of playing games between 10:30 and 12:30. Sharing a hosted lunch is followed by educational programming or Bingo.  (Warning – stand close to the door if you have to announce that Bingo has been replaced by something else.  Make the announcement and quickly exit! RUN!!) 

My observation was that when our 20 to 30 friends departed between 1:30 and 2:00, everyone had had a good time.  But I know that skills of observation can be faulty.  I was interested in a more objective assessment of the results of the day’s activities.  I was wondering, “What was important to this group and why did they come to any or all of the 5 weekday Together Today gatherings?”  Here are a few responses to my unscientific study.

  1. How Important Is Together Today To You? 22 of the 27 responses indicated “extremely important”, 4 said “somewhat” and 1 said “not at all”, but this person attends every week!
  2. 72% said they desired more conversation with others.  Topics of conversation were not of much importance;  there is just a strong need for conversation.
  3. 75% indicated a desire to share part of their life story with others.

The input from this unscientific poll (I know I covered this a few lines ago) convinced me that not only were some important needs being met, but that there is great opportunity to do more for this community.  Plus, as my personal experience has shown, these folks are very appreciative of the opportunity to be together for a few hours each day.  As I listen to conversations, I realize that something significant is happening here.  These folks are dialed into one another’s lives and the issues that confront them.  They care for one another and value being together for the day.  Although it is a diverse group, there is a high level of harmony and acceptance of one another.  Here, isolation is receiving a bit of a dent in its somewhat invisible shield.  For a few hours, isolation has been defeated.

It is probably time to get a little geeky with some scientific research study stuff.

In the study titled Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions by Stephanie Capcioppo and others, they state that while digital connectedness has rapidly increased, personal isolation has increased.  In the 70’s social isolation was judged to be about 11% – 17%, rising to over 40 % in middle aged and older adults in 2010.  I copied the following from their report.  For me, there is a lot to digest, process and determine if there are steps for me to take to impact isolation.

Loneliness corresponds to a discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual social relations (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). This discrepancy then leads to the negative experience of feeling alone and/or the distress and dysphoria of feeling socially isolated even when among family or friends (Weiss, 1973). This definition underscores the fact that feeling alone or lonely does not necessarily mean being alone nor does being alone necessarily mean feeling alone (see J. T. Cacioppo et al., this issue). One can feel lonely in the crowd or in a marriage. Reciprocally, one may enjoy being alone (a pleasant state defined as solitude; Tillich, 1959) at times in order to reach personal growth experiences (such as those achieved through solitary meditation or mindfulness exercises) or to simply take a temporary break from dealing with the demands of modern life.

Loneliness emphasizes the fact that social species require not simply the presence of others but also the presence of significant others whom they can trust, who give them a goal in life, with whom they can plan, interact, and work together to survive and prosper (J. T. Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Moreover, the physical presence of significant others in one’s social environment is not a sufficient condition. One needs to feel connected to significant others to not feel lonely. Accordingly, one can be temporarily alone and not feel lonely as they feel highly connected with their spouse, family, and/or friends – even at a distance. Subjectivity and perception of the friendly or hostile nature of one’s social environment is, thus, a characteristic of loneliness.

While most of what they share might appear to be obvious to the casual observer, their work adds a lot of credibility to the point that isolation is a real and serious issue.  Also, it appears to me that there are some solutions that do not need federal, state, county or municipal budgets.

What can be done?

  1. Be aware
  2. Listen to people (Don’t talk! Listen!)
  3. Be willing to engage with others (set aside your agenda and your desire to dispense information that you think will fix the problem-you don’t follow your own advice but You expect others to follow it?)
  4. Educate yourself

Let’s hit the pause button and continue this discussion at another time.  There are a few personal stories I want to share.

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