Senior Loneliness: Fighting the Epidemic

Senior loneliness is not only a pressing social issue, it’s also a major health risk. A groundbreaking study links social isolation with a higher risk of death in adults aged 52 and older.It’s been found to be as physically harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and contributes to cognitive decline, including the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD).

To fight the loneliness epidemic – experienced by more than 40 percent of seniors throughout the nation – innovators in senior care are taking new approaches. They’re helping residents to seek rewarding activities, make robust social connections, and find a renewed sense of purpose.

Seeing the Need

“Relocating from the home environment to a senior living community can be a huge change and challenge,” says Robin Gill, regional wellness director for Lifetime Wellness. “It’s often stressful for the resident and their family. Some newly arrived residents may not want to be in this new place, and they withdraw. They may be devastated by the loss of a spouse. They may have developed a medical condition that limits their independence. Or they may have failing memory, reduced eyesight, or impaired hearing, all of which can heighten feelings of isolation.

“Part of our job is making sure everybody knows they’re welcome in the community, just as they are. Then, working with facility staff, we get to know each resident, explore what activities would most appeal to them, and find ways they can naturally connect with others.”

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Supporting the Whole Person

A leading provider of person-centered wellness, life enrichment, and recreational programs to senior living communities, Lifetime Wellness offers an array of activities to help residents bond and engage while reducing feelings of senior loneliness. The company sponsors a LifeWorks Senior Wellness program, focusing on the six dimensions of wellness: physical, social, emotional, intellectual, vocational, and spiritual.

“All activities and events in our wellness program focus on one of these aspects – or several in combination,” Gill says. “For example, a variety of education programs, from computer tutorials to sign language classes, appeal to the intellectual dimension. Our gardening program, Nature Works, is both emotional and vocational. Health and fitness activities are physical, intellectual, and social. The diversity of offerings appeals to a wide range of senior interests and engages the whole person.”

Spotting the Lonely Resident

“Some residents will naturally seek out people to know, places to go, and activities to be involved in,” Gill says. “Others may be slower to connect. Some residents may start out being social, but along the way, become withdrawn. We’re always on the lookout for changes in behavior. If we spot signs of isolation, we add additional programs and interventions and work with the staff to find the best way to support the resident.”

The shy or introverted senior may need a special invitation to engage in activities.

Gill offers the example of a male resident and former farmer who was not acclimating well to his community environment. Day by day, he shied away from others and stayed alone in his room. “One afternoon, we invited him to join our garden club gathered in the courtyard. Step by step, he became a part of the group and began advising on the best conditions for growing herbs and vegetables. He even constructed a scarecrow. Once he connected with an activity that matched his interests, he had a purpose, a sense of belonging, and a new group of friends!”

Shaping a Personal Program 

The LifeWorks calendar takes shape as residents needs evolve. Key to program development is understanding residents’ life stories and incorporating activities that are part of their personal values and traditions – from tree trimming in the winter holiday season to flying a kite in the spring. Activities extend beyond facility walls. For example, a shared goal of giving back to the larger community spawned a new program called Community Works. The program’s most recent activities include creating greeting cards for Cardz for Kidz!, an organization providing handmade cards to children’s hospitals; delivering fresh-baked cookies to local first responders; and presenting small gifts to other seniors in the community.

For seniors in memory care, programs such as Aroma Works and Music and Memory help enhance communication. “We’ve found that residents living with ADRD who are involved in these programs are more likely to make eye contact and participate successfully with others in a social setting,” Gill says.

“Whatever the event or activity, keeping residents involved is key to helping them feel at home. Engagement in many dimensions guards against depression, promotes improved functional abilities, and helps seniors age successfully and enjoy their best quality of life.”