All throughout time we have had older members in our tribe to guide, teach and encourage us. This older generation has played a key evolutionary role and yet in our modern society they can easily be forgotten. In our haste to keep up with our everyday we spend less time with our family units and in our quest for quick information we turn to technology such as Google. This disconnect wastes the valuable resources we have in older generations and leaves them…well, lonely.
After all that our they have done for us, how can we as a society return the favour? Here are five ways we can act:
1. Improving our Communication
Be present. Someone once said, “the older you get, the less people notice you”. Take the time to appreciate everyone around you, not just your own age group.
Call. Send an email. Write a letter. Don’t get caught up being “too busy” because you think you have to fill people in on every detail since you last saw them ten years ago. Grab a notecard and write a greeting, a memory and a wish for their health. Or ask them something you want to learn from them. It doesn’t have to be a NY Times bestseller. It just needs to get put in the mail.
Or rather than send a card, arrange a visit or phone call to interview them! You can pick any topic but if you’re stuck for ideas, check out these questions related to family history. You will be surprised with the things you find out, and maybe you’ll learn something about yourself in the process.
2. Promoting Massive Open Online Courses
The use of computers decreases loneliness in the elderly population because it allows for communication with others, including family members, when factors such as geographic distance can be a barrier .
Massive open online courses are another way computers serve to increase socialization in the elderly population. Older age groups are already taking advantage of MOOCs like Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn, which have the potential to not only keep this population mentally active but also to give them the information they need on healthy aging, as well as providing interaction with other learners. Some programs like SeniorNet and thirdAge specifically target the older population. If we knew better how to engage elderly participants with topics of interest to them, MOOCs can act as a means of reducing loneliness .
In addition, rather than just being students, this population can act as a valuable resource for others to learn from because they have been through experiences and historical events that the younger generation has not been through .
3. Addressing Lifestyle Factors
So we realize there’s a connection between loneliness and health. However, when looking at the relationship between loneliness and health we also have to consider lifestyle factors such as perceived stress, physical inactivity and poor sleep . It may be useful to tackle both the loneliness aspect as well as these mediating variables at the same time. Here are some examples of how this can be applied:
Exergaming: Exergaming is the term used for physical activity done in conjunction with a gaming system. This is a great way to increase interaction between generations while improving sociability, decreasing social anxiety and decreasing loneliness at the same time . Maybe granddaughter just got Wii Fit for her birthday and this is the perfect chance to play boxing with grandpa. Or hey why not – maybe one of your grandparents decided to play Wii Fit against you!
Home-Delivered Meal Programs: Loneliness and social isolation have negative impacts on nutritional status in the elderly. While social isolation has a less dramatic correlation, one study found that up to 71% of lonely elderly are malnourished ! Why might this be? Possible reasons include decreased appetite or ability to grocery shop. Also, loneliness is associated with depression, and depression is associated with decreased food intake .
What can we do about this? Delivery programs such as Meals on Wheels can both improve calorie and protein intake as well as relieving the sense of loneliness . Meals on Wheels is a non-profit dedicated to delivering meals to seniors. But they don’t stop at that - they go the extra step to make this meal delivery a way to combat social isolation and provide a safety check for the person they are delivering to. You can make a difference by volunteering here.
4. Strengthening Social Support
We know how important social support is, but how can the elderly incorporate more social activities into their daily routine? One suggestion is volunteering to read books to children, thereby providing meaningful activity for both parties. And for a heart-warming peek into an intergenerational dance program check out this video.
Being surrounded by people isn’t enough to relieve loneliness. A relationship with an unequal exchange such as one person providing for another can lead to feelings of indebtedness. In another example, support from family when mourning the death of a spouse may be comforting without necessarily making you feel less lonely. Thus the social interaction should have meaning, and be with someone you want to interact with .
5. As Healthcare Professionals
Healthcare professionals have the valuable opportunity to screen for loneliness in their older patients and to assess how this could play a role in their patients’ overall well-being. It is not uncommon to recognize that some patients, regardless of age, are lonely. As a healthcare professional, you may be the only person your patient talks to this week. Helping patients address their instinctive and protective, but negative thoughts around social situations so they can build meaningful social connections could be life changing.
Take a moment to consider the older generations who have had a positive impact on your life. Grandparents, other family members, teachers, friends, and mentors… reach out to the elders in your tribe. Just as they have helped you, your acts of reaching out can also have a positive influence.
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Photo credit: Huy Phan