Today, thousands of older Americans face serious problems of loneliness and isolation. For a variety of reasons, many older people live alone with virtually no contact with the outside world. Loss of a spouse, frailty and an unwillingness to leave the home prevent older citizens from maintaining a social, outgoing lifestyle.
Unfortunately, I know of many sad stories of social isolation. Recently, a researcher who studied this problem told me an incredibly vivid and unsettling story about an older man who led a sad, depressed and lonely life. Although he had a very successful career, he had recently lost his wife and was estranged from his only daughter. He felt hopeless, alone, and relegated himself to a life confined within his small, suburban house.
Fortunately for him, he met and befriended this wonderful young researcher, and for the remainder of his life she was his closest friend. She served as the only link to the world outside, saving him from total isolation. The companionship they shared changed the course of their lives, making each day fuller and richer.
Another frequent scenario to plague the elderly community lies not with the isolated adult, but rather with his exasperated son or daughter. Oftentimes, the parent refuses to listen to the adult child, and, despite serious difficulties and limitations, refuses to leave the ancestral home. Usually it is a widowed mother, who is unable to climb the stairs, can no longer clean the house, eats inadequately, risks falling and will not go out.
Despite pleas, she refuses to recognize the benefits of life in an assisted-living center and ignores her increasingly frustrated family. Clinging to perceived independence, the mother remains unhappy and alone.
Beyond frustrating family members, social isolation and loneliness create many adverse health effects. Depression is common. Frequently, meals are missed or there are difficulties purchasing or making meals, which lead to weight loss and malnutrition. This, together with being housebound, leads to weakness and reduced mobility. Falls are common and, in the end, virtually every illness becomes more common and more dangerous.
As a geriatrician, I deal with this problem on a daily basis. Anytime I meet a new patient, I always ask about loneliness. In many circumstances, I find family conflict dominating the entire issue of isolation. Adult children want to take care of their 80- or 90-year-old parent, while the mother or father demands to remain alone. Submitting to the wishes of well-intentioned adult family members often becomes a battle over independence. For children who become their parent?s parent, safety becomes the central priority.
By contrast, older people want to maintain independence, and, for them, the psychological benefit of independent (though isolated) living far outweighs the risks.
In the end, we must respect the wishes of our older parent, aunt or grandparent. However, we must not allow the desire for independence to overwhelm our responsibility as concerned relatives. All too often, adult children fail to recognize there are many ways to address isolation and reduce loneliness.
As baby boomers of the sandwich generation, we must commit ourselves to finding healthy and creative solutions to address the problems that affect our elderly parents and relatives. Helping with shopping, medication, meal delivery and other daily tasks can reduce the physical tolls on an elderly adult and create new avenues for healthy interaction and socialization. Additionally, there are numerous outside community resources dedicated to helping improve the lives of older citizens, such as the Interfaith Caregiver Coalition that recruits volunteers to visit, befriend and care for older adults, or the local Humane Society that trains “compassionate companions,” pets that assist elderly citizens. Hobbies, clubs, pets or volunteers can change the life of a lonely older adult.
With a little research and investigation, concerned relatives will find many avenues and alternatives to help their elderly friend or family member maintain health, independence and happiness..
Dr. David Lipschitz is the director of the Dr. David Health and Wellness Center in Little Rock. To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz, visit www.drdavidhealth.com