Lonely. We’ve all felt it at different stages in our lives. Empty nesters lose their sense of purpose and long for the buzzy commotion when the kids leave for college. Children feel alone when they start a new school, or their “BFF” moves away. Fortunately, these feelings often dissipate as new pursuits, hobbies, and friends fill the void, but for many elders, there is a dearth of options to replace their social network after the loss of a spouse and or multiple friends. Older individuals may find it difficult to bounce back emotionally, turning loneliness into depression and anxiety.
Loneliness and depression have become a national concern across virtually all demographic groups. So much so, that the U.S. Surgeon General issued a recent report to bring awareness to the problem of what he identified as “an epidemic of loneliness.” While this epidemic started long before Covid, the pandemic played a role in exacerbating loneliness among our most vulnerable seniors, explains Megan Davis, director of social services at United Hebrew.
“We’ve always had an emphasis on the overall health and well-being of our residents, but during the pandemic, when we were isolated from loved ones, we were laser-focused on mental health,” says Davis. “It’s all part of our unique familial culture and environment that permeates every level and stage of resident care on the campus.”
Signs of Mental Health Issues
All incoming United Hebrew residents — in long-term skilled nursing, assisted living and memory care, or short-term rehabilitation — are screened by social workers to assess mood and mental wellness. The outcome of these screenings prompt next steps to address potential mental health issues that may or may not stem from loneliness, according to Davis.
“It’s critical that we monitor mental health, and assess our residents’ risk for loneliness,” she says. “Studies are confirming the impact loneliness and isolation have on one’s physical health, including a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia.”
Davis says the types of things she looks for – and family members should look for in aging loved ones –are:
- Changes in sleep pattern
- Decreased appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of interest in things that normally brought joy
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Any changes in health
Easing Loneliness Through Social Connection
According to HealthInAging.org, the average age of seniors who live in communities that provide assistance is 87 years old. Many individuals born of this generation have differing values and attitudes when it comes to expressing vulnerability.
“Depression wasn’t something that was openly talked about, even among close relatives,” explains Davis. “Although staff may be picking up signs that there may be a problem, we have to be mindful of our residents’ association with depression, loneliness, or anxiety as a stigma that may make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. Their culture may view vulnerability or talking about such things as taboo.
“So, how do you work around that? It’s up to us to be clued in and paying attention. We really spend the time to get to know our residents while they’re here because they’re all so special. They help us relive history!
“United Hebrew staff develop relationships with residents throughout the entire campus, and their families as well. In independent and assisted living, for example, if staff notice any differences in behavior or appearance, they’ll share their observations with family members, along with a suggestion for a check-in. It’s a community where people look out for each other, she explains.
“In getting to know our residents, we can mitigate loneliness and serve them by being better social connectors. We look to create these opportunities by introducing residents to one another where we know there is commonality or shared interests,” says Davis. “For example, in our skilled nursing community, we introduced two gentlemen who are both veterans and now they are in each other’s rooms all day long, they eat together and enjoy each other’s company.
“Recently, we had a younger woman in her 60s who was just feeling defeated. She was recovering from a medical condition and felt hopeless. One day she asked about a woman that she encountered in our building. When she found out that she was 96 and still full of life, it inspired and reinvigorated her. She said, if she can do that at 96, I can do it, too!”
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Davis adds that activities and entertainment are a foundational part of campus culture. This enrichment gets residents up and out, talking, laughing, participating, so they feel connected and valued among their neighbors.