When you are younger, you feel an endless sense of possibilities for your life. There’s an almost blind sense of immortality where you can’t imagine being a senior or what it will feel like, both physically and emotionally. But one day, you look up and you are a senior, and the realization that your life will never be the same can come with a heavy emotional toll.
Here’s the thing about life: as we get older, the world continues to evolve. Babies are born, technology gets faster, and the sheer manner in which people live their lives changes. What used to be is no longer, and suddenly, you’re older and don’t seem to fit in like you used to. Your body isn’t as agile, your understanding of the way the world works seems antiquated, and the people you once took care of, are now trying to take care of you.
If it sounds overwhelming, it’s because it is. It’s easy to leave our seniors behind because we are busy with our lives and the daily grind of it all. According to Caring.com, an online senior care resource, “In June 2020, 56% of 50- to 80-year-olds reported feeling isolated from others, about twice as many who said the same in October 2018.” Even if you don’t have a senior in your immediate family, you can still help others in a meaningful way. Here are four ways you can make a difference in a senior’s life.
- Find a social activity to do together
Seniors were young once too, and probably had people in their life that kept them busy. Whether it was their kids, their spouse or coworkers, they spent a majority of their life around others. Find an activity that interests them, like an art or exercise class, a gardening club, or even volunteering at a local animal shelter, and do it with them. Being around others doing something they enjoy can do wonders for their mental and physical health.
Isolation and loneliness can take a toll on physical health. According to Caring.com, serious physical ailments can occur due to their mental health, such as:
- Heart disease and stroke. Recent research published in Heart, a leading cardiology journal, reported that feeling lonely or socially isolated was associated with a 29% higher risk of heart disease. Poor social relationships were linked to a 32% higher risk of stroke.
- Dementia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that seniors who are socially isolated could have a 50% higher risk of developing dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is a well-known type of dementia.
- Premature death. Loneliness may be an important risk factor for early mortality. According to a review of 35 scientific studies published in the journal PLoS One, feeling lonely is associated with a 22% higher risk of dying of any cause.
- Have a senior teach you something new
We can learn a lot from our older generations. Find an activity they enjoy that involves them teaching you something. It could be gardening, baking, photography, painting, sewing, woodworking, handy work, car mechanics–whatever they used to take an interest in when they were younger.
Have them show you how to do things, let them teach you something, but not in a way that makes them feel belittled. Be truly interested in what they have to say! Ask questions, showing them that you are interested in their knowledge. You never know what you’ll learn! It may be a way of doing something that would otherwise be lost to time and modern conveniences. Promoting their sense of purpose can be transformative for their mental health.
- Help them adopt adaptive technology
Sometimes, a senior has social opportunities but is only isolated because of a health or mobility problem. It may be hearing loss, difficulty walking or standing, or diminishing eyesight, they may feel embarrassed or unsafe leaving their home. Even if they leave the home, if they can’t hear what others are discussing, see clearly or move easily, they can feel left behind and ignored. This is a dangerous and slippery slope for seniors, as not only does the isolation negatively impact their mental health, but the physical decline can also lead to depression and anxiety.
Adaptive tech and equipment can be anything that helps them feel better about their health issues and gives them the confidence to leave the house. This can be a mobility tool like a cane, walker, gait belts or scooters; assisted hearing devices like hearing aids, cochlear implants or personal amplifying devices; identifying senior-specific transportation; a trip to the optometrist to address vision loss–all of these can help the physical limitations that may be adding to their sense of loneliness.
- Contact a senior-focused organization
There are organizations across the country that help seniors with a variety of issues, from meal access to socialization. These organizations often understand the mental state of seniors, so if the senior in your life is resistant to leaving the home or doing activities, they can find ways to reach them.
Here are a few of the organizations that you can engage with that you may have never heard of!
- AARP Friendly Voice Program: AARP’s Friendly Voice provides free phone check-ins to older adults. Seniors can sign up to receive regular calls from trained volunteers. A different volunteer calls each time, giving seniors the opportunity to talk to many new people. Call (888) 281-0145 to get it set up.
- Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes: Seniors with a love of learning can make friends with similar interests at Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. OLLIs are hosted at 125 colleges and universities nationwide and funded by the nonprofit Bernard Osher Foundation. Seniors can participate in engaging classroom experiences or join classmates on field trips to local destinations. Call (415) 861-5587 to see if there is an institute near you.
- Pets for the Elderly: Pets for the Elderly helps lonely seniors adopt dogs and cats from animal shelters. The charity provides financial assistance with adoption fees, veterinary services, pet food, supplies and other costs of senior pet ownership. Call (480) 625-4679 for more information.
There are several more organizations listed on Caring.com in their guide for helping isolated and lonely seniors.
The guide also provides online and state-by-state resources that can help the senior in your life feel more connected, appreciated, seen and heard–all feelings that will improve their quality of life. Just because they are elderly doesn’t mean their life is over, and it’s important that we all recognize this.