When people lose someone they care about, they might cope with it by speaking to the person as if they are still alive. But when does this coping mechanism turn from loneliness to a form of dementia? When does the desire for companionship turn from imagination to an untrue reality?
Dementia is a condition that affects not only the person losing their memory but also the family around them. It can range from not knowing which medications to take to forgetting that their spouse is no longer alive or not being able to recall the names of their children. Recent studies by the University Medical Centre in Amsterdam show that feeling lonely can be considered a major risk factor for dementia.
According to Dr. Jalling Jan Holwerda, “Individuals with feelings of loneliness remained 1.64 times more likely to develop clinical dementia than persons who did not feel lonely.”
Other studies in the past have spoken to the physical and mental harms of loneliness. Only now these harms are being found to have increasingly more links to dementia. Time Magazine stated: “Indeed a growing body of studies find that loneliness itself can kill, typically by raising blood pressure and increasing risk for heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure is also a risk factor for dementia.”
At the conclusion of the study conducted in Amsterdam in December 2012, they found that, in total, those who reported feeling lonely were 64 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who did not feel that way. The study stressed that the link was between feeling lonely and an increased risk for dementia. Many who participated in the study were part of social groups or lived amongst others. Physically your elderly loved one may not appear lonely or socially secluded but mentally they may still feel isolated.
As a child, you can’t completely blame yourself for your elderly parents’ feelings of loneliness. Certainly make an effort to visit them as much as you can or call them up on the phone. Try to be as much of a presence in their lives as possible, but you still won’t be able to be there one-hundred percent of the time. In order to decrease their risk of dementia you can help to decrease your elderly loved ones’ feelings of loneliness by recognizing the importance of finding a sustainable source of social interaction to keep your loved one emotionally and mentally healthy, even when you can’t be there.
Caregiverstress.com suggests that you get your elderly loved one a pet, if they are capable of taking care of one. Animals, especially dogs, can offer loving warmth and company. When people are very lonely, they may begin talking out loud to deceased loved ones or themselves just so they can hear a human voice. Pets make great listeners for the lonely or depressed.
Another way to increase social interaction while also providing a feeling of purpose and importance is to encourage your elderly loved one to volunteer. There is such a large variety of volunteer opportunities for any number of individual capabilities. You can read to children, help out in the store area of a local food pantry, play a musical instrument for fellow elderly in assisted living, nursing or independent living homes, gather or sew clothing for the homeless, or help out at church or religious events. Volunteering isn’t just for young people hoping to bolster their resumes. Volunteering strengthens communities but it also strengthens the volunteers. It gives them a feeling of self-worth, a feeling that they are doing something, no matter how small, to make a difference. Volunteering is one of the strongest weapons in combating loneliness. If your elderly loved one is able, encourage them to find somewhere or some way to volunteer.
As suggested by Caregiverstress.com, if your elderly loved one is feeling lonely you might want to make sure that there are not physical problems that could be causing it. Elderly who lose their hearing often begin to feel cut-off from others because they don’t really get what’s going on. Shakiness or other physical inabilities may make them feel weak and helpless which could lead them to feeling unable to participate in certain activities and thus cause them to decline offers for social interaction. If your elderly loved one is severely limited physically, you may consider hiring an in-home caregiver to give your elderly loved one a companion that they can talk to for at least some part of the day.
The battle against loneliness is now the battle against dementia, and it has never been more important to not only pay attention to your loved one’s physical health, but their emotional and mental health as well. We want to keep our elderly loved ones around as long as possible so let’s make certain that we’re doing everything we can to help them feel important, needed, and, most importantly, loved.
James A. Froude said, “We enter the world alone, we leave the world alone.” There is no feeling more horrible than the loneliness one feels in the unsettling quiet of an empty house. For many elderly, it seems that aging accompanies loneliness as children leave and spouses pass on. Though many children devote years of their lives to care for their elderly parents, others abandon them to solitude.
A French article translates to read, “Elderly people who are deprived of the warmth of human contact are at the risk of turning inward. For the very old, an atmosphere such as this can become psychologically catastrophic and lead to depressive syndromes such as extreme sadness, a desire to do nothing, sleep problems and even dementia.”
It is easier to care for our parents when their health is deteriorating, but what about those who retain their health well into their fifties or sixties? Just as a teenager becomes preoccupied with high school social life and can often forget about the family dinner or activity, adults can become preoccupied with their jobs and families of their own and neglect their elderly parents.
Even if your parent is healthy, they may not remain so when subject to consistent loneliness. Ask yourself: How many times have I given my mother a call this past month? How often have I visited my parents this past year? How long did I stay? Long enough to have a real conversation, enjoy a dinner, or take a walk through the park?
On her blog, Judith Gelber spoke of her experience with loneliness in old age, “Among the side-effects of aging are loneliness and isolation. Friends and family die or move away. Whatever support system existed before seems in tatters. Life becomes a hard pill to swallow.”
The problem of loneliness in aging does not always fall on the children; sometimes the elderly bring loneliness upon themselves. “They’ve spent their lives looking after others as well as themselves. While they appreciate help, they still want to feel they are capable of taking care of themselves and running their own lives.” (Judith Gelber) Neighbors and others seeking to reach out are sometimes turned away for this very reason. The elderly have just as much right to keep their pride as the younger population does. Sometimes, though, the elderly can be a bit more stubborn. They’ve seen more of life, they’ve been more weathered by pains and hardships, and now they’re facing their last years alone.
Judith Gelber said, “The best help for the elderly is in the doing rather than the asking.” It’s true that some of the elderly may isolate themselves, but it does not mean that inside they are not reaching out for comfort and companionship. As Gelber said, many times actions do speak louder than words. If you are a nearby neighbor to an elderly person you could mow their lawn, shovel their walk, or bring over a warm, home-cooked meal. As a child you can simply pick up the phone and give your mother or father a call.
After everything so many of the elderly have contributed to our nation, our communities, and our families, we should give them the courtesy of friendship. There is no cure for loneliness but companionship and love. No one should have to leave this world alone.