How to Avoid Senior Isolation and Loneliness

About 11 million people aged 65 and up live alone, per the U.S. Census Bureau, and 42 million people over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, says an AARP Loneliness Study. As the likelihood of living alone increases with age, so does a higher risk of mortality, according to a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.

In fact, this 2015 Brigham Young University study led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., found the health risks of prolonged isolation are on par with obesity and smoking.

Divorce, the death of a spouse or relative, illness, and changes in mobility, memory, hearing and vision are among the reasons older adults isolate themselves — sometimes unintentionally. A surviving spouse may be paralyzed by grief, struggling to adjust to her new normal as a widow. She may feel she needs more time to grieve but is unaware of the risks of isolation. A fiercely independent retiree who has lived alone for years may find his impaired hearing an obstacle in social situations and choose to isolate himself, not recognizing the effects of loneliness on his health.

Isolation doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s important to be proactive at the first signs of loneliness. Here are five ways to combat the dangers of isolation — currently considered a growing health epidemic among older adults — with the benefits of professional companion care:

1. Companion Care Provides a Lifesaving Social Connection

These trends around isolation are dramatic, but so are the results of staying connected. According to the Holt-Lunstad study, a greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduction in the risk of early death.

Stephany Hartman is a 65-year-old divorcee who lives alone by choice. She welcomed the solitude after a lifetime of caring for her husband, children and parents; however, Hartman — who is now retired — does get lonely. “My children are grown and have homes, jobs and families of their own, and I may go weeks without speaking to them,” she says. Hartman relies on her dogs for company, and the internet — Facebook in particular — for companionship. “I depend on that connection to keep in touch with friends and see what my children and grandchildren are up to.”

Social media does offer an easy, efficient way to connect with those we care about, but it is not a replacement for human contact and real-time, face-to-face interactions. Companion care can meet that need.

2. Companion Care Fosters Independence

Some people may associate home care with surrendering independence — or with a feeling of “I can’t.” Hartman says this is her biggest frustration about living alone. “I can't do many of the things for myself that I used to do. My kids have said that all I have to do is ask and they will help me, but I understand they have their own responsibilities,” she says.

Deb Hallisey, a family caregiver to her father before his passing and now to her mother, who lives alone, describes her mom as being “resigned” to companion care — and not necessarily in a negative way.

She knew her diminished eyesight would make living alone without support a challenge. “My mother is also very social,” says Hallisey. And after losing her husband of 61 years, she knew that she wanted to stay at home — and that companion care offered the best solution. She’s still able to be independent at home, maintain social connections, and has someone to talk to on good and bad days.

Whether your older loved one is exceptionally social or shy, companion care strikes a healthy balance between independence and isolation.

3. Companion Care Meets Basic and Advanced Needs

Living alone isn’t just about loneliness: it means an older adult now must do things alone — like preparing meals, scheduling appointments, doing laundry or making household repairs. Since Mom passed away, it may be the first time Dad is doing laundry or buying groceries. For surviving spouses, taking on the responsibility of the whole household can be intense and overwhelming.

“On days when I'm able, I work on home improvements, but that is sporadic because of arthritis and fibromyalgia,” says Hartman. “I can deal with quite a bit of pain but some days are more difficult than others.”

For Hartman’s parents, keeping up with the activities of daily living are complicated by their care needs. “My father was blind and nearly deaf when he was diagnosed with metastasized cancer. At nearly the same time, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.” It was hard for Hartman to meet all their needs, as she was single and had a full-time job.

The companion for Hallisey’s mother helps her with grocery shopping, but it was important to establish early on in their relationship that her independence on that task was respected. At first, her companion would rush through putting the groceries away. “Mom remembers where things go and she wants to do it,” Hallisey says. So her companion had to learn to slow to her mother’s pace.

Open, honest communication about what’s important to the older adult who lives alone is key to establishing a positive relationship.

4. Companion Care Offers a Listening Ear and an Extra Pair of Eyes

You may be genuinely concerned about how a parent will fare once she’s on her own. You may be just as concerned about his safety as you are about his potential for isolation and loneliness. Grief and depression are closely tied to isolation, and both can seriously interrupt daily life — turning an independent person into one unable to keep up with basic daily tasks.

That doesn't mean a move to assisted living is necessary. The health risks of isolation are significant, but the opportunities for extended independence, support at home and a positive relationship with a professional caregiver are even more significant. If the companion is simply there to let you know how your parent is doing and provide a listening ear in a time of grief and loneliness, it's worth it.

5. Companion Care is for All Seasons and Situations

For Monica Stynchula, CEO and Founder of ReunionCare, companion care was “a blessing” for her mom after her dad’s passing — as she and her siblings did not live in their hometown. “Our parents had been married for 59 years. Mom was lost in her grief for years and wanted to stay in her home filled with the memories of raising a family with her love,” she says. “Her medical conditions limited her ability to get out when the weather turned cold and lowered her motivation for good self-care. Having a professional caregiver come in to visit and do light housework was a blessing when none of us could get to her,” Stynchula says.

Winter is a particularly difficult season for seniors living alone, but for an isolated adult, grief and loneliness can visit any time of year. If your loved one lost a spouse in the fall, he might struggle most during that season. If your parent lost a sibling in the summer, she might feel the weight of grief more sharply at that time.

Isolation and loneliness can happen year-round. But a companion caregiver can support your loved one through the difficult and not-so-difficult seasons: providing social connections, friendship, household help, enhanced independence and more.

Learn more about vital companion care services by clicking here.

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