Addressing the issue of social isolation in senior population

By Donna Westphal, Activity Coordinator, 
Chariton Specialty Care

     Imagine being dumped on a deserted island in the middle of someplace you have never been and everything seems completely foreign to you. There is no contact with the outside and you lose your connection with the everyday world around you.  
     Some days as busy adults we yearn for the solitude that this image generates in our mind.  Yet if forced into this situation, whether it is from a mental, physical or social factor, I think most would agree that social isolation would lose its allure quite rapidly.
     In modern society, social isolation is a growing issue within our older population. Of course, they are not “dumped on a deserted island,” but for some i can seem very similar.  There are many factors contributing to this growing issue. Increased longevity has created a greater likelihood of living alone, death of friends and family members, retirement, poor health restricting activities, family members not living within close proximity and/or the busy lifestyles that seem to be inherent of today’s society.  Another cause may in fact be the rising use of social media as a replacement for one-on-one social interaction that was required before cell phone, texts and tweets.  Whatever the reason, it is is an issue that can be remedied.
     As Activity (Director) Coordinator for Chariton Specialty Care, social isolation is an area we work hard to correct or improve in our patients’ daily lives.  It is a subject that needs more attention brought to focus throughout the community on the signs, causes and remedies to help alleviate this social isolation. (I might add that it is not an issue that is exclusively reserved for the elderly.
Social isolation is “a state in which the individual lacks a sense of belonging socially, lacks engagement with others, has a minimal number of social contacts and they are deficient in fulfilling and quality relationships.”) It is estimated that upwards of 43% of older adults suffer social isolation to varying degrees.  The elderly ranked social relationships with family and friends second only to their health.

How does it happen?  
     For some it is a choice, but for others the reasons can be varied. Small families or families who are inaccessible due to distance. Poor health, eyesight or hearing loss may make it hard or frustrating to socialize.  Driving may no longer be an option so their social network can become dependent on outside intervention. It has become easy for these people to fall through the cracks as they don’t have the social network to call upon or become aware of changes in their physical and mental health.

What are the risks?  
     Loneliness, depression, loss of appetite and overall greater risk of illness and or death due to one or all of these conditions.

What can you do?  
     It’s simple - make the effort to visit or call elderly friends and relatives regularly.  Talk to your neighbors, promote a sense of purpose.  Become a volunteer there are always organizations that can help set you up with someone in need.  Don’t be afraid to suggest a welfare check on someone who you feel may be in need.
     Be aware and make an effort to reach out to those around you, share a smile, and take the time to listen, who knows you may be the one to reap the greatest reward.
     No matter what age you are, or what your circumstances might be, you are special, and you still have something unique to offer. Your life, because of who you are, has meaning. - Barbara de Angelis