Caregiving is not just a career; for many it’s a passion. And the impact caregivers have on those they care for is significant; it’s changing how we age and how long we remain in our own homes as we age. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) points out that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.
Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Without a caregiver, it’s almost impossible to turn back the clock and remain independent. In fact, recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
According to another recent study, loneliness and social isolation can be as physically damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Without a career caregiver, it’s literally aging you faster than you ever expected. And, nothing is harder for the children of aging parents, or the friends and loved ones of elderly adults, than to watch on helplessly as the ones they care about struggle with a vicious cycle of increasing solitude and depression. For those that have chosen caregiving as their career, it’s important to understand the causes of loneliness in the elderly and to be aware of all the methods available for addressing them.
Are those you work with at risk? Try to stay active and better connected if you:
- live alone or are unable to leave your home
- feel alone or disconnected from others
- recently experienced a major loss or change
- are a caregiver
- lack a sense of purpose
What can we do to manage the effects of loneliness and help ensure a better quality of life for at-risk seniors? It’s widely agreed across a range of systematic studies that taking proactive measures to fortify yourself against loneliness is the best approach. And as a caregiver, you can help facilitate each of these for the men and women you work with. The career you have selected is so much more than that. In fact, there are jobs in each of these areas designed under the caregiving umbrella to support those in need. Caregivers and studies alike recommend that seniors do several things to stay healthy, including:
Active seniors tend to feel less lonely. Moderate exercise three or four times a week correlates with loneliness rates from 6 – 9% lower than among those who don’t exercise.
Seniors who enjoy healthy sleep patterns and get from five to eight hours of sleep per night are 25% less likely to be lonely than those who get four hours or less sleep in a night. They’re also 7% less likely to be lonely than those suffering from a sleep disorder.
Regular Social Contact
The “one conversation a day” principle is frequently cited as a way of staving off loneliness, and AARP’s data tends to support that claim. Seniors who know their neighbors and have friendly relations with them, and who are also regularly in touch with other friends and family through texting or video conferencing, enjoy substantially lower rates of loneliness than those who don’t have those kinds of regular social inputs. Caregivers provide that connection and regular social contact, even when others are in the mix as well. The American Psychological Association recently reported that this is one of the most fulfilling parts of caregiving.
Access to Transportation
Where possible, the data on loneliness indicates it should be a priority for seniors to seek out places that will offer diverse transportation possibilities. Where the elderly have access to a wide set of options including public transportation, ride-shares, taxis and the occasional transportation support of friends or family, they are much more mobile and enjoy considerably lower rates of loneliness.
Volunteering and Civic Engagement
Getting involved in the community as a volunteer or through engagement with civic or religious groups is another major way to stave off loneliness. Seniors who did not volunteer within the past year were 12% more likely to register as lonely than those who were able to volunteer.
Companion Care Services
Another great way to combat loneliness in the elderly is to access cross-generational companion services. These kinds of services pair up college students with seniors to provide social contact and shared activities, the kind of connection that builds meaningful relationships over time: the kinds of relationships that can be the best balm for feelings of isolation. Now they don’t replace the career caregiver, they just bring another dimension of connection into the mix.
Technology Can Help
While family members can’t be with loved ones in person all the time, we can however utilize technology to actively connect seniors to the world. Companies like LifeStation and others work with career caregivers to aid in their work. In partnering with organizations, they are able to help career caregivers achieve more with those they work with on a daily basis.
According to Pew Research, 64 percent of those age 65 and older already use the internet – this number will keep going up. And according to one blog post, technology could be one solution to combating loneliness. Video chat, social media, transportation apps, telehealth, and medical alert and wellness services are some resources which are helping isolated seniors right now
Professional caregivers can help alleviate some social isolation and loneliness in seniors with health or mobility issues. Elderly caregivers are in great demand and caregiving jobs can be extremely rewarding for the right type of person. There is also a lot of opportunity for caregiving jobs in most communities since the number of seniors requiring professional caregiving services far outnumbers the trained caregivers that are available. Caregiving jobs can be found in nursing homes, hospitals, adult day care centers and in clients' homes.
If you enjoy a lot of flexibility and independence in your work, like working one-on-one with someone and developing a relationship with a client, and like fulfilling someone's requests and catering to an individual's likes and dislikes then you may be a terrific professional caregiver. Caregivers perform tasks such as cooking for someone, helping with errands/shopping, conversing and participating in activities in a home-like environment.
One expert recommends that older adults take mental stock of the extent to which they feel lonely or socially isolated. Am I feeling left out? Is my caregiver giving me what I need? To what extent are my relationships supportive? Then, they should consider what underlies any problems. Why don’t I get together with friends? Why have I lost touch with people I once spoke with? When you identify these factors, then you can think about the most appropriate strategies to relieve your discomfort and handle any obstacles that are getting in the way. And, more importantly, you can work with your caregiver, who has chosen this admirable career, to help enhance your quality of life significantly.