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Loneliness Is a Health Risk for Older Adults

In-home caregivers know that preventing loneliness supports mental, physical and emotional health for seniors.

In-home caregiver plays cards with senior client

Gerontologists predict an epidemic of loneliness as the baby boomers age and our senior population swells to 55 million by the year 2020. They warn that smaller families, a higher divorce rate and inadequate public transportation in rural and suburban communities will combine to increase the number of housebound elderly. They urge senior services organizations to address these problems in creative ways to keep our older population socially engaged.

Why is avoiding loneliness so important? We now know that loneliness is an actual health risk. Loneliness is linked to increased blood pressure, sleep disorders, depression, dementia and a host of other chronic health problems. Startling research by University of Chicago’s Dr. John Cacioppo, a leading expert on the topic of loneliness and aging, suggests that social isolation can have a negative impact on a senior’s well-being equal to the effects of smoking or obesity. Said Dr. Cacioppo, "People are becoming more isolated, and this health problem is likely to grow. If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what we can do to mitigate it."

Home care experts have taken note of these research findings, and are tailoring their services to support social engagement for senior clients who are dealing with chronic health conditions. Here are five ways in-home care helps seniors overcome obstacles to staying connected with others:

The challenge: Giving up the car keys. The June 2012 issue of Caring Right at Home examined the complex issue of Alzheimer’s disease and driving. Loss of vision and decreased manual dexterity also make driving unsafe for many seniors. The transition from driver to nondriver can feel devastating. According to University of Texas gerontologist Dr. Kavon Young, "Aging is a process where so many things are lost. Part of what seniors try to hold onto is their independence—the independence to make decisions about their health, their future and their driving." She says losing the ability to drive may trigger depression, anxiety and a loss of motivation to follow the healthcare provider’s instructions.

The home care solution: In-home care doesn’t only happen at home. Professional home caregivers preserve the mobility and independence of seniors by providing transportation, allowing clients to continue attending their faith community, visiting friends, going to the senior center and enjoying other social opportunities. (Read "Out and About: The Home Care Perspective" in the October 2011 issue of Caring Right at Home to learn more about the importance of "life space.")

The challenge: Loss of loved ones and friends. Sometimes it is only after we lose our spouse, other family members or close friends that we fully realize how much our social life was intertwined with theirs. For seniors, the loss of those with whom they spent so much time can result in abrupt isolation. Even as they are dealing with grief after such a loss, it is important to begin building a new social context that will lower the risk of depression and decline.

The home care solution: The presence of a carefully chosen, compatible in-home caregiver provides a comforting, reassuring human presence for seniors who need help with the activities of daily living. Companionship is nourishing for the spirit. And the caregiver can work with the senior and family to locate new opportunities for social contact—perhaps a new club or class, a volunteer opportunity, or even an online social group.

The challenge: Loved ones live far away. In our mobile society, families are often spread across the country. They keep in touch with phone calls, email and occasional visits. But when seniors' care needs change, they typically depend more on family for support. For long-distance caregivers, this can be a heartbreaking time as lonely elders need help and family is not there to give it. Sometimes seniors relocate to their adult children’s community. But most prefer to remain in their own home, in their familiar settings, near their old friends.

The home care solution: In-home care allows millions of seniors to remain safe and independent in their own homes, in their established social context. Long-distance caregivers gain invaluable peace of mind knowing their loved one has assistance with housekeeping, meal preparation, medication supervision, personal grooming, transportation to healthcare appointments … whatever support services they require. Family also reap another bonus: When the in-home caregiver takes over these day-to-day tasks on an ongoing basis, family visits can focus more on meaningful social time rather than crisis control and a long to-do list.

The challenge: Decreased confidence. Health challenges such as stroke, incontinence, memory loss or arthritis make it harder for seniors to get around with confidence. Many fear falling or getting lost. The journal Neurobiology of Aging recently published a study suggesting that even healthy seniors experience age-related brain changes that may cause them to lose their way. Wayne State University gerontology professor Scott Moffat, Ph.D., confirmed, "Navigation is an important cognitive skill that older people may be losing." These seniors may be tempted to spend most of their time alone at home.

The home care solution: Professional in-home caregivers are trained to provide watchful but sensitive supervision to promote their clients’ engagement in the community. This might mean a steady arm on stairways; help with wheelchairs, walkers and other assistive devices; gentle assistance for clients who are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia; and all-around encouragement.

The challenge: Depression and poor self-esteem. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we tend to withdraw from others. It is important to take depression seriously, and to seek professional help if a senior loved one’s symptoms persist. Dr. John Cacioppo’s study showed that for some lonely individuals, "social cognition" therapy can change underlying assumptions that get in the way of meaningful connections with others.

The home care solution: If a therapeutic intervention is recommended for persistent feelings of loneliness and depression, an in-home caregiver can transport the client to appointments, take them to the pharmacy if medication is prescribed, and support all-around health and wellness.

How can we know if grief is normal? What are the signs that a loved one may need help after a loss? Read "Letting Go: The Healing Power of Grief" in the August 2012 issue of Caring Right at Home.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care services.


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Seniors and Celiac Disease
Loneliness Is a Health Risk for Older Adults
Three New Insights About Alzheimer's Disease
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