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My loved one is lonely, how can I help?

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Aging comes with many inevitable realities, but loneliness doesn’t have to be one of them. The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that 11 million adults aged 65 or older live alone, representing about 28% of people within that age demographic. Those living alone or in isolating circumstances can experience detachment, depression, and find it difficult to connect with others.

Caregivers, friends, and loved ones can help seniors deal with loneliness by keeping them engaged in activities such as games and exercise, as well as encouraging them to participate in social activities at your local senior center and other venues.

We’ve rounded up expert advice on how family members can help ward off loneliness in their loved ones.

Increasing socialization

Explore things around you and take little trips. “Whatever the case is, you should look around and see what is out there for you to visit. Feel free meet up with other older people to take a look at what is around in the world and what makes it so special. Anything that helps you feel a little more connected to the world around you is always worthwhile. Even the smallest social experience can make a difference and avoid loneliness and depression.” – 6 Things To Do When Dealing With Loneliness At An Old Age, Aging in Place

 

A hearing aid can reduce communication-related disability and increase socialization. “A straightforward intervention to rehabilitate mild/moderate hearing loss with a hearing aid was effective in reducing communication-related disability and loneliness. The extreme variability in compliance with the hearing aid at baseline and at follow-up, however, suggests that education or counseling regarding appropriate use of their device is needed to ensure that maximum effectiveness is achieved.” – Social Isolation in Community-Dwelling Seniors: An Evidence-Based Analysis, Ontario Health Technology Assessment Series, Twitter: @HQOntario

 

Help them realize a sense of purpose. “Perhaps more than anything, it’s important for seniors to have a sense of purpose. There’s no one activity that stands above the rest, but a wide variety of hobbies will help encourage seniors to be more socially active and less isolated. Even things as simple as a club that meets several times a week to play cards or taking up a hobby can have a positive impact. Similarly, volunteering can not only help seniors stay socially active, but it can also fill them with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.” – 12 ways to help seniors avoid social isolation, Samvedna Senior Care; Twitter: @SamvednaSeniorC

 

Help improve their mobility. “Educate the elder about local public transportation or other options for getting around town.  Encourage the use of adaptive aids, such as canes or walkers, and try to help the elder overcome negative feelings about ‘looking old’ while using these aids.” – The Importance of Social Interaction for Seniors, Elder Law of East Tennessee; Twitter: @ElderLawETN

 

Consider getting a roommate. “Most people think of roommates as something you only have before getting married and having kids, but for seniors it can be a good way to make new friends and get some extra help with home costs and maintenance. And of course, roommates give you someone to talk to and interact with socially on a regular basis. If you find someone that’s a good fit, you can strike up a friendship and find activities you both like to do together.” – 5 Tips for Maintaining Social Connections as You Age, SeniorAdvisor; Twitter: @SeniorAdvisor_

 

Nurture their existing friendships. “Nurturing friendships take effort at any age. To keep yours in good order, it helps to make socializing part of your routine. Claire, for example, regularly texts or calls friends to say she’s thinking about them. She’s also a big fan of setting up the next get-together when she’s on the first one and believes in establishing standing dates. For instance, she has lunch with a friend from high school every three months, and five times a year attends Philly Pops performances with her husband and another couple.” – Bonnie Vengrow, The importance of friends as you age, Aetna; Twitter: @aetna

Improving communication with technology

Consider a smart home device such as Google Home. “Devices and technology change so often, you might also find it hard to keep up. But as resistant as they may be, some technology has so much potential to make seniors’ lives easier, it’d be a missed opportunity to not adopt it. One of these technologies is Google Home, a voice-activated daily assistant that can control devices around the house, make calls, provide entertainment, and answer over 100 million unique questions. You can link it to the TV, radio, thermostat and more by installing a compatible device and activating connections on your phone’s Home app. This virtual helper responds to voice commands, which means that someone with limited vision or reduced finger dexterity can easily use it.” – Why a Google Home Device is Perfect for Seniors, Nurse Next Door; Twitter: @nursenextdoor

 

Get them a cell phone based on their true needs. “Cellular technology represents one of the largest contributing factors to the convenience of today’s communication. And though we may picture the latest iPhone or Android device when thinking about cellular technology, it’s important to consider what seniors truly need. Fortunately, several cell phone manufacturers now offer phones designed with seniors in mind. At the forefront is Jitterbug’s line of phones that provide large text, big buttons, simple menus, and instant access to emergency contacts. Jitterbug and other similar providers offer basic phones and more advanced options for seniors looking for additional features.” – Communicating From a Distance: Seniors and Technology, Comfort Keepers; Twitter: @comfortkeepers

 

Introduce them to social media. “Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are extremely popular among seniors, and for good reason. In fact, it’s fairly easy to create a profile, and immediately connect with family and friends, or even reconnect with people from your past. You might be surprised at how many people share similar interests and how easy it is to strike up a conversation with family and friends. With any online activity, always take into consideration privacy settings to ensure your safety while online.” – 6 Ways for Seniors to Stay Social, Validus Senior Living; Twitter: @ValidusSL

 

Keep connected with loved ones and communities online. “These statistics show the importance of socializing for seniors, including keeping touch online. Social media and email allow seniors with limited mobility the opportunity to interact with others. They can join forums or chats and visit with people they don’t know. They can spend time with family and friends and share photos and stories with those who are too busy or live too far away to visit in person.” –Make Social Interaction a Priority for Seniors, Philips Lifeline

 

Use video chat to speak with loved ones and friends. “When seniors experience loneliness and isolation, it can lead to depression and physical ailments. Psychological and sociological factors have a significant influence on how well we age. That’s why keeping a senior loved one engaged with family and friends is important. Video chatting is a great way to connect across the miles and can go a long way to preventing your loved one from feeling lonely and disconnected. Recent studies have shown that video chatting can reduce the risk of depression.” – Carol Pardue-Spears, How to Introduce Seniors to Video Chatting to Combat Loneliness, Family Matters In-Home Care; Twitter: @familymattershc

 

Try a device tailored to senior needs. “GrandPad is a tablet designed just for seniors with a simplified set of 11 apps that use large, clearly labeled icons (for video and voice calls, photos, email, music, games, news, weather and search). The charged and configured tablet comes in a box designed for seniors, so it’s easy to open. Photos and contacts are preloaded on the device by family, so no passwords or setup are required. Only people on the approved contacts list can send messages and there’s a live support person on call 24/7.” – Amy Blankson, 4 Ingenious Technologies To Help Aging Adults Stay Connected And Engaged, Forbes; Twitter: @Forbes

 

A GPS device may be helpful to reduce any fear of going out. “If you’ve got a senior loved one who is concerned about getting lost, or who has dementia and occasionally wanders, GPS technology can immediately alert caregivers to their location if they leave their comfort zone. There are separate GPS trackers that attach to the wrist or clothing, as well as smartphone GPS apps.” – Sarah J. Stevenson, 10 Pieces of Technology Seniors Should Embrace, SeniorNet; Twitter: @SeniorNetOrg

Watching for signs of depression

Remember not to confuse depression with sadness. “While depression and sadness might seem to go hand and hand, many depressed seniors claim not to feel sad at all. They may complain, instead, of low motivation, a lack of energy, or physical problems. In fact, physical complaints, such as arthritis pain or worsening headaches, are often the predominant symptom of depression in the elderly.” – Depression in Older Adults: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment, HelpGuide; Twitter: @helpguideorg

 

Depression can be caused by underlying health issues. “People with serious illnesses, such as cancer, dementia, heart disease, stroke, or Parkinson's disease, often struggle with depression. They worry about how their condition will change their lives. They might be tired and unable to deal with things that make them sad. Treatment for depression helps them manage both emotional and physical symptoms and improves their quality of life.” – How to Spot the Warning Signs of Depression, AgingCare; Twitter: @AgingCare

 

Know the risk factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). “Being aware of the risk of developing SAD helps you be more proactive and notice symptoms sooner. SAD is more common in women than men. And people with a family history or personal experience with depression may also be at increased risk. Living far from the equator where there’s naturally less sunlight increases the risk of SAD. For example, it’s more common to have SAD during winter in New England than winter in Florida. Low levels of vitamin D have also been found in people with SAD. Scientists suspect that vitamin D plays an important part in regulating serotonin levels.” – 4 Ways Seniors and Caregivers Can Prevent and Manage Seasonal Depression, DailyCaring; Twitter: @DailyCaring

 

Insomnia could be a sign of depression. “Seniors who aren’t falling asleep or who are waking up too early (or both) on a consistent basis may be dealing with depression. We’ve all had nights when our thoughts and worries kept us awake; when this is chronic, it’s insomnia and, with seniors, possibly a sign of something more serious.” – Wanda Moen, Aging Parents and Depression: Warning Signs to Watch For, The Arbor Company; Twitter: @arborcompany

 

Older adults are often misdiagnosed and undertreated. “Healthcare providers may mistake an older adult’s symptoms of depression as just a natural reaction to illness or the life changes that may occur as we age, and therefore not see the depression as something to be treated. Older adults themselves often share this belief and do not seek help because they don’t understand that they could feel better with appropriate treatment.” - Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older, CDC; Twitter: @CDCgov

 

Look for physical symptoms as they are often the first. “Depressed older adults often talk about the physical symptoms of depression first; listen for statements like, ‘I’m not sleeping well,’ or, ‘I’m just not hungry.’ Speak with the home care aide who may be in the home on a daily or weekly basis about any observed changes in behavior, eating, sleeping patterns, etc.” – Angela Peralta, Depression Among the Elderly: Warning Signs Can be Easy to Miss, AgingCare; Twitter: @agingcare

 

Be mindful of the differences between Dementia and depression. “The differences between these two conditions can be a little harder to recognize. Mental sharpness definitely declines in people with dementia, but it can also decline in people with depression. Here are the main distinguishing factors: Dementia tends to be characterized by slow mental decline, confusion, noticeably impaired motor skills, and trouble with short-term memory. In contrast, depression may cause more rapid (but also more limited) mental decline, which can manifest as problems with concentration and energy. People with depression also may consciously notice that they're having difficulties with memory, whereas people with dementia often remain unaware of (or indifferent to) their memory problems.” – What Depression in the Elderly Looks Like & How to Get Help, Great Senior Living; Twitter: @grtseniorliving

 

Simply offering help can make a big impact. “The first and most important thing to do if you suspect your parent or older friend is depressed is to reach out and offer help. He or she needs to be screened by a mental health professional and then treated if depression is diagnosed. You may find a lot of resistance to this, because of denial or embarrassment, but being persistent and getting your loved one help is the only way that he or she will get better.” – Depression in the Elderly, Bridges To Recovery; Twitter: @Bridges2Recovery

 

Look at testing to confirm possible medication side effects. “Consider using a genetic Cytochrome p450 Testing Panel to address possible side effects from medication or adverse side effects causing depressive symptoms. This is a simple cheek swab test that can be ordered by your physician to evaluate your specific metabolism.” – Deborah Serani, Psy.D., What Everyone Needs to Know about Geriatric Depression, Psychology Today; Twitter: @psychtoday

 

Look for any changes in their personal care routine. “Often times, a person with mental health issues will stop adhering to their regular personal care routines. A noticeable change in appearance might signify that a person is unable to successfully adhere to their former routines related to personal appearance. While this will look different for everyone, changes in personal appearance that may be a sign of a mental illness include forgoing bathing or skipping previously standard personal care tasks, such as applying makeup.” – Four Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness to Watch for in Older Adults, Chicago Methodist Senior Services; Twitter: @cmsschicago

 

Be supportive during any treatment for depression. “Encourage the person to follow through with treatment. Depression usually recurs when treatment is stopped too soon, so help your loved one keep up with his or her treatment plan. If it isn’t helping, look into other medications and therapies.” – Depression and Senior Adults, I Need a Lighthouse; Twitter: @ineedalighthous

 

Help them become more comfortable talking about depression. “Many seniors are reluctant to admit they are depressed due to the stigma of mental illness or for fear of being characterized as weak or a failure. This is especially true with our aging Boomer population, and it certainly describes my friend Mike. Oftentimes, seniors view an admission of depression to a loved one or their doctor as an additional burden to the person that is caring for them.” – Rose Madden-Baer, The Depression Epidemic in the Elderly, HuffPost; Twitter: @huffpost

 

Finding a purpose can have a major positive effect. “So get a purpose, no matter how big or small: recycling the plastic bags of everyone in your apartment complex, providing free babysitting for your daughter so she can have a date night with her husband, spoiling your grandchildren with ice-cream, or visiting a lonely neighbor once a week. It doesn’t have to require lots of time, energy, money, or brain power. All you need is a little motivation and a touch of kindness.” – Therese J. Borchard, 12 Depression Busters for Seniors, Psych Central; Twitter: @PsychCentral

 

Connecting with peers

Start with activities at the local Senior Center. “Most cities have a Senior Center where individuals can attend classes or lectures. Learning new skills is positive for everyone. The Senior Center can also be a good place to learn about volunteer opportunities nearby. The healing effects of giving back to a community have also been proven to be especially beneficial for the lonely. Not only are seniors sharing their skills, but they are interacting with new people and building new friendships.” – Socialization and Its Importance to Seniors, Seniorly; Twitter: @Seniorly

 

Look for continuing education classes in the area. “There are lots of adult continuing education opportunities available, many of them free of charge – so if you always wanted to know more about nutrition or learn Portuguese, now's a good time to do it. There are continuing education programs available for homebound seniors, too, through the aid of other seniors who attend classes on site and later share what they've learned.” – Tom Scheve, Top 5 Ways for the Aging to Remain Socially Engaged, HowStuffWorks; Twitter: @howstuffworks

 

Games can be a great way to connect with others. “Gaming can be a social activity. Once a week, meet up with friends to play your favorite game. Choose a video game that multiple players can enjoy or bring your computers along and play your favorite online game or puzzle.

Research shows that ‘senior citizens who increase or maintain social interaction have less cognitive and physical limitations.’ You not only better your health – you can strengthen friendships, meet people with similar interests and have fun!” – Kimberly Barnes, 4 Surprising Benefits of Gaming for Older Adults, Senior Advisor; Twitter: @SeniorAdvisor

 

Get a part-time job that fits with your situation. “The best jobs for older workers vary according to each person's goals, capabilities, health, and other factors. For example, the criteria used in finding good jobs for women over 50 who still have children at home will naturally be different than the criteria used in finding work for people in their 80s who just want a reason to get out and socialize a few times a week.” – 31 Good Jobs for Older People: How to Make Money, Stay Active, and Thrive at Work as a Senior, Great Senior Living; Twitter: @grtseniorliving

 

Join a local fitness group suitable for seniors. “Many people find it easier to exercise with friends or in group settings. Working out with other people can be highly motivating – and it offers an additional benefit for older adults. Isolation is a significant risk for seniors, especially for those living independently, and research has proven that loneliness is bad for our health. By combining exercise with the opportunity to make friends, fitness groups offer an exciting way to connect with others, participate in the community, and get healthy all at the same time.” – Senior Living: Here’s Why Fitness Groups Are Ideal for Seniors, Melrose Gardens; Twitter: @Melrose_Gardens

 

Participate in faith-based activities. “If you are religious, attending services at your church, synagogue, or mosque will help you stay connected with like-minded people. If you don't currently attend religious services but would like to start, don't hesitate to get involved – most places of worship welcome newcomers.” – Tasha Rube, How to Get More Social Interaction As an Elderly Person, wikiHow; Twitter: @wikihow

 

Volunteer time to put your situation in perspective. “Volunteering your time and talents can help to put your own situation in perspective, bringing to light the positives and the things you can be thankful for. Check your local phone book under ‘volunteering’ for organizations such as RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program). You also can check with your local senior center, area agency on aging and hospital for volunteer opportunities.” – Lynn Ponton, MD, Coping With Loneliness: Tips for Seniors, Caregiver Homes; Twitter: @SeniorlinkInc

 

Start a new hobby such as Tai Chi. “Researchers found that older people who regularly performed the traditional Chinese ‘mind and body’ technique were less likely to suffer high blood pressure and were physically stronger. They concluded that the improvement of heart function combined with increased muscular power meant that the martial art should be considered the preferred technique for elderly people to maintain good health.” – Tai Chi named as perfect exercise for the elderly, The Telegraph; Twitter: @Telegraph

 

Join a support group to help cope. “Joining a support group, either in person or online, can make a tremendous difference in how well seniors cope. In most groups people share disease-management strategies, although in some they practice relaxation techniques. Most seniors in support groups benefit from interacting with others in their situation and participation tends to strengthen compliance with physicians' recommendations.” – Support Groups for Seniors: Advice for families and caregivers, Care.com; Twitter: @caredotcom

 

Participate in an Active Aging Week event. “Active Aging Week challenges society’s diminished expectations by showing that, regardless of age or health conditions, adults over 50 can live as fully as possible in all areas of life—physical, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, vocational and environmental. The objective of the annual health-promotion event is to give as many older adults as possible the means to experience wellness activities and exercise in a safe, supportive environment. It also promotes the benefits of healthier, more active lifestyles across the life span.” – About Active Aging Week, Active Aging Week; Twitter: @AAW_ICAA

How family and friends can help

Make a point to visit regularly. “If your elderly family member has been placed in an assisted living home, one of the biggest things that you can do to improve their mood and feelings of loneliness is to visit them frequently and simply spend time with them. This will not only help give you peace of mind about assessing their living situation and how things function on a typical day, but they will see a familiar face as well. Loneliness stems from feeling isolated and not being able to be out and about like they once were.” – Tips For Saving Senior Citizens From Loneliness, Medical Alert Advice; Twitter: @MedicalAlertTip

 

Provide extra support for a senior who has recently lost a spouse. “Older adults may be at highest risk for becoming socially isolated during the period after a spouse has passed away. When you’ve shared your life with a beloved spouse and companion for decades, it can be like losing the foundation of your existence when that person dies. For this reason, it’s important to provide extra emotional and social support. Do more than bring flowers; go the extra mile and spend more time with the senior in the days and weeks following his or her loss. This can make all the difference for the bereaved senior’s well-being, and it helps to encourage a healthy grieving process rather than a spiral into prolonged depression and isolation.” – 12 ways to help seniors avoid social isolation, Samvedna Senior Care; Twitter: @SamvednaSeniorC

 

Don’t forget about the elderly in your neighborhood. “Community members working together and watching out for their older neighbors are essential to reducing social isolation. Reach out with some freshly baked cookies or an invitation to join you for a meal. Offer to take someone for a ride to the grocery store or to run errands. Make an occasional call to say hello and check in. Rake leaves, shovel a walkway, help on garbage and recycling day, and spend some time in conversation. Every little touchpoint makes a difference and lets your neighbor know someone cares.” – Keri Pollock, Social Isolation and Loneliness—The Realities of Modern Life, Aging Wisdom; Twitter: @agingwisdom

 

Be gentle with your encouragement for socialization, especially after a new move. “First, recognize that it takes time for new residents to break into already existing friend groups. Be patient with your loved one and don't push too hard. In addition to being ‘the new kid on the block,’ moving into a facility means admitting to themselves that they are facing health issues and becoming increasingly dependent on others. Encourage socialization but do so gently.” – Carol Bradley Bursack, Encouraging Parents to Socialize After the Move to Senior Living, AgingCare; Twitter: @AgingCare

 

Take your parents or loved ones out to a simple dinner. “Going out to dinner is a classic way to get your parents out of the house and into a new environment. You may prefer to do family only dinners, but don’t forget about your friends and their parents. If they have parents in your same age range around town, why not get together as a group. You might be surprised by how well your parents will do in a group with all different age ranges. They may make friends with the parents of your friends while discussing the grandchildren running around. Even if they don’t hit it off, at least you tried, and you can do it again with a different friend and their family just to break up the monotony.” – 5 Ways You Can Help Your Elderly Parents Socialize, Colonial Home Care Services; Twitter: @ColonialCare

 

Introducing a pet that could make a great companion. “If you think a furry friend could be the perfect companion for a senior you know, it’s important to choose the right kind of pet. Matching a senior with the right pet is simple if you know what to look for. Whether you bring home a cat, dog or cockatoo, keep in mind the senior’s health needs and mobility, financial concerns and personality when choosing an animal companion.” – The Complete Guide to Pet Ownership for Seniors, A Place For Mom; Twitter: @APlaceForMom

 

Encourage treatment for depression if necessary: “Seek professional help such as different therapies or medications and be sure your loved one is keeping up with their treatment plan. If the depression is chronic and severe, it’s definitely advised to see a psychiatrist or therapist, counselling alongside prescribed medication might be the most effective way to help with the chemical imbalance in your brain causing the depression.” – 4 Ways to Alleviate Senior Loneliness and Depression, Nurse Next Door; Twitter: @nursenextdoor

 

Consider senior living in certain situations. “For some seniors, no amount of effort encourages them to come out of their shell. It may take a large change to get them to reignite their interest in people and activities. While placement in a senior living community or a long-term care facility might seem like a viable solution for a lonely elder, it isn’t always that straightforward.” – Anne-Marie Botek, Combatting the Epidemic of Loneliness in Seniors, AgingCare; Twitter: @AgingCare

 

If another caregiver is involved, don’t forget to look after them too. “It can be difficult to remind caregivers that they need to look after themselves first, but find a way to be insistent about attention to self-care: it’s far too easy to place focus solely on the one receiving care. This is a good time to enlist the support of others, as long as you can keep the caregiver from feeling ‘ganged up on.’ If there are concerns about the caregiver’s physical or psychological health, don’t ignore the warning signs: take action before it’s too late.” – Virginia Morey, 10 Ways to Help a Caregiver, A Place for Mom; Twitter: @APlaceForMom

 

Be mindful of how a loved one’s isolation could be affecting you. “Studies have found that loneliness has a tendency to spread from person to person, due to negative social interactions and other factors. In other words, when one person is lonely, that loneliness is more likely to spread to friends or contacts of the lonely individual. Making things even worse, people have a tendency to further isolate people who are lonely because we have evolved to avoid threats to our social cohesion.” – Sarah Stevenson, 20 Facts about Senior Isolation That Will Stun You, A Place for Mom; Twitter: @APlaceForMom

 

Appoint a healthcare advocate to help with communication. “Having a healthcare advocate to evaluate medical advice is highly advisable for everyone. This person should be familiar with the medical conditions and medications of the elderly person so that, when accompanying the person to medical appointments, she can express the patient’s concerns, ask questions about medical advice, and keep notes. For elderly individuals who live alone, finding someone to be a healthcare advocate can be challenging. A trusted friend, good neighbor, or fellow congregationalist can be a good option. A trusted geriatric care manager can also serve as an advocate.” – Getting Older Without Family, The CPA Journal; Twitter: @thecpajournal

 

Establish a buddy system for your loved one. “53% of solo seniors have no one to call if they’re confined to bed, according to a survey of 408 members of the Elder Orphan Facebook group. Another common concern for members is having no one to drive them home from medical procedures. If you don’t have people to call on, it might be time to rethink your living situation.“ – A Growing Number of People Are Navigating Retirement Alone. This Woman Is Spearheading a Movement to Change That, Money; Twitter: @money

 

Provide a sense of security. “Being more vulnerable than an average adult, most seniors live under constant anxiety regarding their safety. It is important that you provide a sense of safety for the elderly person both physically and mentally. This could include ensuring that the surrounding environment and home is a safe at all times.” – Bhavyajyoti Chilukoti, Depression and home care:10 emotional needs of the elderly you MUST know about, The Health Site; Twitter: @HealthSite4U

 

Offer emotional support if a loved one experiences depression. “If an elderly loved one experiences depression, family members can make a difference by offering emotional support. Understand that it isn’t your responsibility to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ someone’s depression. Rather, it’s more important to be understanding and supportive of their feelings, diagnosis, and treatment. Helping and supporting your family member while they search for a good doctor, and accompanying them to their appointments will make them feel supported.” – Danika McClure, How to Help an Elderly Family Member Deal with Depression, Griswold Home Care; Twitter: @GriswoldCares

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