Social Isolation in the Elderly

social isolation elderly

There are many wonderful advantages of being over 50: Retirement on the horizon. Less responsibility for young children-delightful but exhausting and more.

As the 50s extend into the 70s and especially 80s however, statistically medical problems and debility increase. Besides the complex issues that befall seniors, another significant but, often, unidentified problem is social isolation.

The Perfect Social Storm

A woman I know at age 87 (we’ll call her Miriam) is experiencing the perfect storm of social isolation. She’s independent with everything – albeit slow. In fact she still drives but in only benign weather conditions and her geographic comfort radius is shrinking.

By choice, Miriam moved to a condo a decade ago. Unfortunately the financial crisis arrested further construction and only 7 units are finished and occupied. Bottom line is she has very few neighbors.

A few of her girlfriends are still around, but only 1 drives and of her 4 children, only 1 is local and he’s over an hour away. She boosts her people contact with phone calls to her 4 adult children and close friends regularly – sometimes 10 within an hour – to decompress her panic attacks from loneliness. Miriam has only a handful of regular outings: hair, massage and a quilting group and they’re weather dependent.

There’s a very delicate balance for Mariam between social isolation and social overload. She looks forward to small events but only 1 or 2 a day and not longer than 2 hours, sort of social bursts.

Since Miriam loves her condo and really doesn’t want to move, she thwarts – possibly subconsciously – efforts to seriously consider senior complexes.

Her perfect social world doesn’t exist.

Rock and Hard Place

I’ve known Miriam over 4 decades. She’s still lucid and independent. Never the energizer bunny, she’s much slower now with everything. A stroke many years ago left some residual processing delays.

Occasionally she has difficulty with word finding and stalls mid-sentence. Successful communication with her requires speaking 2 sentences distinctly – she has a hearing loss too and is inconsistent with her hearing aides. Let her process what’s said and then continue. After an hour visit, she’s toast!
In a perfect social world, someone would stop by or meet her somewhere locally or pick her up for a short trip every day. But there’s no one to do that everyday. Conversely, Miriam has rejected senior living so far because “there are too many people around.”

She’s commented a few times that “everyone is so busy”. When I reminded her that once upon a time, she was also “so busy” raising 4 kids, going to college and working full time; she just shrugged.

Not Making a Decision is a Decision

She frets about trying to decide if she should be proactive and relocate into senior housing. In a perfect social and safety world, she would do that. But like many seniors, I suspect she’ll stay put until an insurmountable crisis forces a move and takes the decision out of her hands. Unfortunately her options may diminish greatly when that crisis happens.

If you know of a senior, or anyone, in similar shoes, consider adding even 1 visit a month to help offset social isolation. If we’re lucky, we’ll all live long enough to walk in her shoes one day!

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About Elaine C.Pereira

Elaine retired in June 2010 as a school Occupational Therapist where she worked with special needs children. She lives in southeastern Michigan with her husband, Joe. Between them, they have five children — Joe has three sons and Elaine has twin daughters-and soon-to-be five grandchildren. Elaine has a Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy from Wayne State University. Elaine is the author of I Will Never Forget and she was inspired to tell her mother’s incredible story in part to help other caregivers coping with memory loss issues in their loved ones. I Will Never Forget

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