We all get lonely sometimes, but the elderly are more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness than most people. While it’s normal to occasionally feel lonely, long periods of loneliness can lead to depression.
If you have aging parents, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs that they’re feeling lonely and to have a strategy in place in the event that they begin to struggle with loneliness. This is because people who are lonely are more likely to die prematurely. Statistics show that loneliness is about as deadly as smoking and more dangerous to our health than obesity.
So what exactly is loneliness? The Encyclopedia of Human Relationships describes loneliness as ‘Distress resulting from discrepancies between perceived and ideal social relationships.’ This is why it’s possible for people to have a large group of friends and acquaintances and still feel lonely.
According to Psychology Today, there are many factors that impact how people respond to loneliness, and different people will respond to loneliness differently. However, there are a few key signs to look out for if you’re concerned about an elderly parent.
Your parent may be feeling lonely if you notice any of these signs:
They’re Shopping ’til They Drop
One study found that people who are lonely will often feel the need to accumulate possessions in an attempt to use material things to try to fill a void. Shopping will often provide a temporary happiness ‘boost,’ which can mask the symptoms of loneliness.
They’re Sleeping Poorly
Another study has linked feelings of anxiety and isolation to fragmented sleeping habits. If your parent seems to be more tired than they usually are, or are continually sleeping poorly, it may be a good idea to check if they’re getting enough social interaction during their day.
They’re Constantly Sick
Have you noticed that your parent constantly seems to be sick? A study from UCLA found that people who are lonely and socially isolated are more likely to have a weakened immune system than people who are getting enough social stimulation. That’s because the immune system begins to focus on bacteria, making it more likely that someone suffering from loneliness will pick up a virus.
They Keep Losing Weight
If your parent is beginning to look thinner, they may not be eating well. When they’re only cooking for one, it can seem like there’s little point in cooking a full meal- especially if they have also had changes in their appetite.
They’re Taking More Showers and Baths
Interestingly, a series of studies found that people who are lonely are more likely to take long, hot baths and showers to help themselves feel better. It turns out that there is a connection between loneliness and warmth, and humans feel lonelier when they’re cold.
They’re Watching a lot of TV
While people who are retired will naturally watch a little more TV than the rest of us, the University of Texas found that there’s a link between loneliness and binge-watching TV series. This is because TV can help us ‘switch off’ our bad feelings and it’s a good distraction from feelings of depression and loneliness. If you’ve noticed that your parent is spending more time than usually watching TV, they may be feeling lonely.
Helping Parents Deal with Loneliness
Social isolation and loneliness are strongly linked with depression, and studies have found that depression and loneliness tend to go hand-in-hand. That’s why it’s important to spot the signs that your parent is feeling lonely and nip it in the bud as soon as you can.
Here are a few ways you can help your parents fight loneliness:
Stay in Touch
This may seem obvious, but maintaining communication with your parents is a great way to help them beat loneliness. Of course, it’s easy to get busy with day-to-day life, so you may want to schedule a weekly call to catch up and let them know they’re important to you.
It can be easy to fall into a rut when you’re retired, especially if you haven’t been going out much. Encourage your parents to socialise and meet new people- or even sign up for some new hobbies or activities.
Your parent may never have used a computer in their lives, but the internet is a wonderful way for them to meet new, like-minded people. Not only can Google and Facebook help them to find new meetups and classes in their area, but they can also use forums to chat with other people about a variety of interests and topics.
Talk to them about internet safety and the importance of not giving out any private information online. If you’re busy, your children may be available to help teach them the basics.
There are thousands of people who need a helping hand, and people who are dealing with loneliness will often find that volunteering is a great way to meet people. Not only does volunteering help them feel gratitude for their own situation, but they will get to share their own life experience and skills with their community.
Are your parents dealing with loneliness? They’ll have the opportunity to make friends and social connections at Scalabrini. Get in touch today to learn more.