February 6, 2013
“It’s time to eat your lunch, Don,” said 85-year-old Thelma. “I made your favorite chicken salad.” After 59 years of marriage, Thelma knew how to make her husband happy. The only trouble was that he had passed away three years prior; she was talking to his 5x7 portrait propped up against the napkin holder on the kitchen table.
Was Thelma, who lived alone and didn’t get out much, experiencing loneliness, dementia, or both?
While it’s not clear whether loneliness contributes to the onset of dementia or is, in fact, a symptom of early dementia, research has shown that those who feel lonely have an increased risk for cognitive decline.
A study conducted by researchers at Amsterdam’s Free University Medical Centre revealed that those who reported feeling lonely were 64 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who did not feel that way. Results from the study are published in the December 2012 issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
As David Troxel, a noted dementia care expert says, “The brain loves company.” According to a chapter in “Your Guide to Coping with Alzheimer’s & Dementia” on the relationship between depression and dementia many people who feel lonely or depressed benefit from increased mental stimulation and social interaction, including activities like exercise, spending time with children, and activities involving pets, as do people living with dementia.
Below are five ways you can help a socially isolated loved one battle loneliness and potentially reduce the risk of dementia.
1. Get a pet
A playful dog that seems to love unconditionally or an affectionate cat that will curl up in your lap can bring a great sense of joy and companionship to an older adult who lives alone or feels socially isolated. However, use common sense to assess whether your loved one is capable of caring for the pet. Read more about how a pet can help fight depression and benefit someone with dementia.
Volunteering provides many older adults with a sense of purpose, which can help sustain a healthier lifestyle that includes increased physical, mental and social activity. For example, 78-year-old Ernest Bradbury began volunteering to fill a void after his wife died. His story serves as a good example of how seniors may be able to overcome feelings of loneliness by serving others. Visit www.salutetoseniorservice.com to learn more about the value of volunteering for seniors.
3. Check for problems that may be causing withdrawal.
Does your loved one have trouble hearing? That can lead to frustration in social settings, causing your loved one to shy away from them. Or maybe your loved one has a problem like incontinence that may lead to embarrassment or fear of an accident in a social setting. If you suspect one of these issues contributes to your loved one’s withdrawal from others, talk to a doctor about possible solutions.
4. Hire an In-Home Care Companion
Whether your loved one lives at home or in a senior care facility, an in-home care companion can encourage the healthy interaction and activity that can be vital for seniors in retaining cognitive abilities, physical health and emotional health. Companionship services provided by a professional caregiver may include planning outings, facilitating transportation, offering conversation, playing games and cards, providing mental stimulation, and much more.
One family caregiver whose mother greatly benefited from an in-home care companion said, “It soon became clear to me that my mom’s caretakers were also becoming her ‘friends.’ She looked forward to seeing her caretaker and enjoyed her conversations with them about every topic under the sun. It was great to see her perk up when her caretaker arrived. The visits continue to give her a ‘lift’ during the day and provide some excitement in her routine.”
5. Seek Medical Help
If you are concerned that your loved one exhibits signs of depression (click here for a signs of depression checklist), consult your loved one’s doctor. The doctor should be able to evaluate and confirm a diagnosis of depression and whether the depression may be a side-effect from medications or if it can be treated effectively with anti-depressants.
One last thought: If your aging loved one is feeling lonely or depressed, be careful not to blame yourself for not visiting more often or spending more time together. Visit as much as you can, but know that it’s important to find a sustainable source of social interaction that can keep your loved one mentally, emotionally and physically healthy, even when you can’t be there.
Read more about how loneliness can impact seniors’ health.
Get helpful tips and articles like these delivered to your email.