I am a 56-year-old long-distance caregiver and the only child of my 83-year-old father and 79-year-old mother, who has dementia. My parents used to have lots of friends but now very few come around. Due to my job situation, I can’t visit often. My dad has told me that he is lonely and tired. What can I do to support him? — R.T., Oakland
It sounds like your parents’ situation needs to be evaluated for many factors. Your dad may be depressed and overwhelmed as a caregiver. He may also be anticipating the loss of your mother. Part of what should be considered is whether he has adequate help in the home. Needless to say, his own health is a major consideration. And often we don’t realize that loneliness itself can be a major risk factor that affects our health.
We are all social beings. We laugh together and cry together. The stresses and challenges of life are easier endured when we share them with people we can confide in and trust. Then there are times in our lives when we feel lonely, which can lead to feelings of distress and suffering and can actually impair health and the quality of life.
Although loneliness can affect anyone, at any age, older people are particularly at risk after loss of friends and family, reduced mobility or limited income. According to a recent study by John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, people who feel consistently lonely have a 14 percent higher risk of premature death than those who don’t. Cacioppo states that “Feeling lonely isn’t only unhappy, it’s unsafe.” His study found that loneliness can have a negative impact on restful and restorative sleep, blood pressure, morning cortisol levels, depression and the overall feeling of a meaningful life.
Dr. Carla Perissinotto at UCSF Medical Center also examined loneliness as an independent factor for poor health outcomes. Her study concluded that the psychosocial distress of loneliness is an added risk factor for worsening disability and increased death rates.
These studies make it clear that evaluating an older adult’s sense of loneliness should be included in any medical and psychosocial assessment since it may be as accurate a predictor of decline as traditional medical risk factors.
When we think about what may create feelings of loneliness later in life, among the most common culprits are relocations, illness and retirement. After going through these events, many seniors must make a conscious effort to rebuild their social networks. Gerontologists predict that we may be facing an epidemic of loneliness as baby boomers age and our senior population expands. The social trend has been smaller families, higher divorce rates and inadequate transportation in rural and suburban areas. All of this can contribute to more housebound and isolated older adults.
Because your father has been caring for your mother, he may have begun to feel isolated. As your mother’s dementia progressed, it is possible that your father’s friends drifted away. It’s important to encourage your father to find friends who accept his new situation. Getting more help, connecting with others who may be in his situation, and possibly joining a support group could all benefit him. He might also consider working one-on-one with a therapist, social worker or care manager, which would provide him with the emotional support and practical help that he may need during this time.
Other options for connecting with the wider community include respite care and volunteers. Having someone come to the house to care for your mother for a few hours could enable your dad to get some much-needed respite and allow him to re-engage with friends or hobbies. There are also many organizations that pair volunteers with homebound individuals for friendly visiting or transportation assistance. This too could provide your father with an extra layer of support as well as allow him to build relationships that would bolster his social network.
We now know that loneliness may be alleviated with increased social interaction and other interventions and that it is potentially more treatable than other factors that affect decline in our later years. Making sure that your parents remain integrated with their larger community and creating opportunities for them to be involved with others will bring more social connection and caring into their lives.
Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of Adult Services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. Her columns appear regularly in J.’s Seniors sections. Have questions about your aging parents? Email email@example.com or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.