For most age groups, including seniors, social isolation is a leading cause of feelings of depression and—in the worst-case scenario—thoughts of suicide. As a caregiver, you might be in the best position to spot signs of social isolation and address them with seniors in a way that works best for your situation. Here, we’ll discuss some ways you can help.
Dangers of Isolation
There are more than 8 million adults ages 50 and over who are affected by social isolation. Since it poses significant risks, experts consider it to be a growing health epidemic influenced by a complex array of factors, including things like poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events that involve significant change and loss. In fact, prolonged social isolation poses such a major risk to health that AARP says the negative impact can be compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Social Isolation and Depression in Elderly Adults
Seniors are especially vulnerable to social isolation since advancing age is normally accompanied by major life changes. An additional factor that plays an increasingly important role is the increased use of technology in our society. According to a blog post by the MSW@USC—the online master of social work program at the University of Southern California—titled, “Understanding and Combating Social Isolation in the Digital Age,” Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker, outlines how technology can be both a help and a hindrance for older adults.
When it comes to maintaining connections with younger generations, Weiss writes that older adults often feel left out and undervalued, since young people rarely use traditional forms of communication—like writing a letter or picking up the phone. Instead, they primarily use technology to communicate with others, a dynamic that seniors may not understand. In addition, he highlights how digital fluency plays a role in social isolation, since it’s something that many seniors may not possess: “For others…usually older individuals who are not as knowledgeable about or comfortable with digital connectivity, feelings of isolation and disconnection may set in,” Weiss writes.
What Caregivers Should Look For
As a caregiver, you’re in a unique position to recognize whether your loved one is experiencing depression as a result of social isolation. A good place to start is to be aware of significant things that may be occurring—like changes in health, major life events that result in some form of loss, and holidays that may create increased feelings of sadness. In addition, there are certain signs and symptoms of depression that may indicate that your loved one is struggling:
- Persistent sadness
- Increased report of physical ailments
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Expressing hopelessness or helplessness
- Decreased motivation and energy
- Changes in normal sleep patterns
- Low self-worth
- Increased use of substances, like alcohol
- Talking about death excessively
- Expressing suicidal thoughts
- Changes in memory, movement, or speech
- Neglecting self-care
What Caregivers Can Do
Although social isolation can be a major issue for older adults, the good news is that there are many ways that caregivers can help. These include things like encouraging your loved one to re-engage with important relationships, making new friends, volunteering, taking up a hobby, or adopting a pet. Additionally, since technology can be a wonderful tool for making and maintaining connections, helping an older adult to learn and embrace it more fully could be a great way to fight social isolation and depression. As Weiss writes, “… older people can learn to enjoy, trust and connect in meaningful ways through technology. In fact, older individuals, if they are taught to use technology effectively, can benefit from digital interactions as much as if not more than younger people.”
Finally, if you suspect that your loved one is struggling with depression from any cause and attempts to help haven’t seemed to work, it could be time to seek professional help, and contacting your loved one’s doctor may be a good place to start.
Author Bio: Colleen O’Day is a Marketing Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and K-12 Education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.