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Isolation among older people living with dementia

Is Your Aging Parent Living Alone? How to Break the Isolation Barrier

Many of you may recall the startling Brigham Young University study, a few years ago, which found that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to elderly adults as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. While that finding may be hard to accept, there are other studies that support a connection between isolation and serious health issues.

Another study conducted by the University of Michigan found that 56% of seniors living alone reported feeling isolated. That’s almost double the percentage reported back in 2018. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 13 million seniors currently live alone. So, putting those numbers together reveals a troubling pattern. And the pandemic has only made it worse.

While we are optimistic that vaccinations will eventually lead to opening doors for visits and more physical interactions, we’re not there yet. The CDC warns us that all the safety precautions initially put in place must continue to be followed until we have a sufficient percentage of the population vaccinated.

So, if you are an adult child of a parent who lives alone, you are undoubtedly feeling immense pressure to find ways to stay connected with your loved until the day when you can be there in person. Fortunately, there are things you can do to create and sustain that connection.

Here are 5 tips to get you started:

  1. If you haven’t done so already, consider providing your parent with a smartphone and/or tablet computer. Set it up and program it to make it easy for them to contact you and to connect with them. That way you can share video calls with them. Being able to see your family during these interactions can be more comforting than audio alone.
  2. Share photographs. This can be especially effective if your loved one struggles with dementia. Either send them through the mail or share them in a video call. Old photographs of people and places can often spark memories and great conversations.
  3. Get back to written correspondence. Buy a roll of stamps and start a routine of sending a card or note at least a few times per week. It will give your loved one something to look forward to and keep them focused on something positive.
  4. Watch a movie or classic TV show episode “together” either via a service like Netflix or DVD. Be sure to queue up your watch time together so that you are in sync and communicate over the phone. It takes some getting used to, but can be a fun weekly activity for everyone.
  5. Increase the frequency of your phone calls. If you were calling a few times per week, consider moving to a once-per-day call. Try adding a question to each call to encourage engagement. Here are a few good conversation starters we’ve collected from several resources:
    • What do you remember best about [name the city where they grew up]?
    • What did you do before they invented the [computer, internet, mobile phone]
    • What was your favorite [movie, song, film star, comedian, TV show] when you were young?

Use your imagination to find more ways to stay as tuned in as possible. Encourage input from other family members. Children often have the most creative ideas.

Remember to end each call or virtual visit by reassuring your loved one that the pandemic won’t last forever and that you will all be together again soon. Talk about birthdays to come and plans for future celebrations. You will find that keeping in touch in this way will benefit your own emotional and physical health as well.