Loneliness among elderly parents causes
Loneliness can affect any of us at any point in our lives, however if it’s caused by the loss of a long-term partner there is also the pain of grief to deal with. Shared pain or uncertainty about how best to approach someone who’s grieving can compound loneliness even further. Loss of a partner is only one reason why loneliness can be worse as we age though.
As we get older, we can find certain tasks becoming more difficult due to physical limitations. This can include being able to do housework and take care of ourselves, but crucially, it can also mean staying indoors more due to fear of falling. As NHS Inform agrees, “As we age, fear of falling can become a serious concern…You might stop doing things and lose confidence in your abilities.”
We can help to combat this anxiety by supporting loved ones to still have the confidence to go out and enjoy their local community, whether that’s offering a comforting arm to hold onto or help to access equipment that could give them back their independence.
No longer hub of family
When children are young, they fully depend on their parents, and it can be difficult for some people to reconcile with this when their children have grown and are living independently. Leaving home and living their own busy lives, perhaps with children of their own, they may not have so much spare time, and visits with older loved ones may become less regular. Someone who has always been at the heart of family life may feel as if their role is no longer needed, and the social aspects associated with bringing up children, such as chatting with other mums, may have long gone. We can encourage our loved ones to keep those links active wherever possible or support them to make new connections with people nearby.
No longer working
Many people consider retirement to be the best thing that can happen in their working life, however as well as getting up later, you also don’t have to spend hours every day with co-workers. While this can be positive if there were some unpleasant ones, many people’s social life revolves around their work and colleagues, and once that common ground has gone it can be difficult to maintain relationships. Encouraging an elderly relative to keep in touch with valued former colleagues keeps the connection strong, as well as regular chats in-between.
Death of friends
As we get older, it’s a sad fact of life that people we’ve grown up with and those older than us begin to pass away. Whether it’s family members or friends, the loss of people who mean a lot to us can leave us vulnerable and without regular contact. However many friends your parent has, the loss of any of them can impact their life heavily. Family members may not realise how much someone has been affected by such a loss and may not consider how hours you would’ve spent with friends will now be filled. Consequently, it’s important to encourage loved ones to find ways to continue to socialise when they feel up to it.
Loneliness signs to watch out for
Difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep or sleeping too much
Some people find that their sleep patterns change markedly as they approach old age, perhaps because they are less active, don’t have work responsibilities, or because a partner is no longer beside them. Changes in sleep pattern can also be linked to depression which itself could stem from long periods of loneliness. According to the Sleep Foundation, “People with depression may find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night or experience periods of excessive daytime sleepiness” while the National Institute for Health and Care Research tells us that “up to one in five cases of depression among older adults could be prevented by reducing loneliness.”
Changes in appetite and losing weight
While it’s natural that many people find their appetite decreasing in older age, perhaps because of a change in their activity levels or due to medication side-effects, it’s important that rapid weight loss or refusal to eat be reported to a medical professional. A decreasing appetite could also be as a result of depression, or because your parent always ate with their partner and miss the social side of mealtimes. If they live alone then perhaps work lunchtimes could be scheduled so that you can eat with them, or if this isn’t possible, why not arrange for a Helping Hands carer to prepare their lunch and give them some company in the middle of the day?
Increased alcohol consumption
Using alcohol as a substance to numb painful feelings is understandable, but something that should be a concern in a lonely parent. While they may have always enjoyed the odd tipple, there is an obvious difference between that and using alcohol as a coping mechanism. While not wanting to criticise the lifestyle choices of our parents, it’s important that we investigate why something may be happening, and if it becomes clear that an increase in alcohol consumption is because of feeling lonely, it’s important that we act accordingly.
Difficulty maintaining relationships
While there is a definite link between loneliness and depression, we shouldn’t presume that just because a parent changes their behaviour or acts differently towards us it is always because of depression. It could be that they have decided to make changes in their life and want to explore different ways of doing things, however if there is someone you suspect of having an undue influence on a loved one then it may be worth having a chat and making sure that they aren’t feeling pressured to make change by someone else.
Exhausted by social interaction
As we age, most of us find ourselves becoming tired more quickly than we used to and experiencing physical ailments such as aches or pains. Because of this, and especially if they’re not getting good quality sleep, an elderly parent may find family gatherings or getting together with friends exhausting. This may tempt them to avoid such gatherings and decide to stay at home instead, however they will then miss out on a vital source of socialising and be at even greater risk of loneliness. Family members should take this into account when planning family events and ensure that a quiet space is provided where the elderly person can rest for a while if necessary.
Lacking self confidence
Losing a sense of purpose once their family have grown and moved away can really dent a person’s self-confidence, as can thinking about meeting new people after the death of a partner or close friend. It’s not always because of a death either, perhaps members of a close circle of friends have one-by-one moved from the area to be closer to loved ones, leaving an elderly parent feeling vulnerable and without people of their own age nearby. Encouraging them to meet new people may be met with resistance because they feel they’re “too old to start again” and a lack of confidence is making them believe they have nothing to offer anyone. However, by accompanying them to a day centre or community event an elderly parent may have the courage to get chatting to people with similar interests and will also appreciate the support they’re receiving from their loved ones.
Not feeling seen or heard
As our lives get busier and we seem to have less spare time every day that passes, we may inadvertently miss visits with elderly relatives due to unforeseen circumstances. Even if we manage to visit it could be that we’re so focussed on catching up with phone messages or waiting for a phone call that we don’t pick up on the obvious verbal or physical clues our loved one is exhibiting. Feeling stressed, impatient, or irritated with an elderly parent can be natural when the child is living with anxiety and a heavy schedule, yet this can make the parent feel as if they’re not being listened to, and the child feeling that the parent ‘doesn’t understand’ their life. This can lead to resentment on both sides, with the added danger of the parent feeling they’re a ‘burden’ and consequently telling the child not to come and see them because ‘I know how busy you are’. This will only make loneliness more likely though, so having a compromise such as no phone time during a visit, and the parent promising to limit their stories about people the child doesn’t know for example, will mean quality exchanges that both will get more benefit from.
Intrusive thoughts of suicide
Expressions by a loved one of feeling suicidal or that ‘the world would be better off’ without them should never be ignored, as this is a clear sign that depression may have taken hold. This may have been caused by extended periods of loneliness and an inability to discuss how they’re feeling with anyone close to them, and even if you have tried to talk to them about how they’re feeling they may be resistant, feeling they’ll be ‘burdening’ you. Encouraging them to speak to their GP or practice nurse could help, or if they’re reluctant, charities such as Age Concern or The Samaritans have helplines that could support both them and you. Age UK also offer a befriending service, where a volunteer can telephone or visit your elderly parent to help counteract loneliness.
Poor spending habits
Trying to make ourselves feel better through spending money isn’t unique to older people; after all they call it ‘retail therapy’ for a reason. Sometimes though spending money can get out of hand, especially if someone is living beyond their means and leaving themselves without money for essentials such as food or heating. While all adults with mental capacity have the right to make their own decisions about what they spend their money on, family can be understandably concerned if they feel their parent is making unwise financial decisions. There is also the danger that because of loneliness, they have been left vulnerable to the attentions of people who will try and take their money from them. Having a chat with them about excessive spending, or a reluctance to spend money on essential items, can also be down to deteriorating mental health, or the onset of dementia. In these circumstances, expert help via Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, or a medical professional will give you helpful advice on how to broach the subject with your loved one.
Changes in phone call frequency
If your elderly parent usually calls you frequently, or you call them but they’re always very receptive, any changes will naturally cause you concern. When someone is feeling lonely or depressed, they may well pull away from social interaction, which often compounds the situation even more. There could also be another reason, such as them thinking you’re busy and not wanting to interrupt your day, or perhaps they have reduced the number of calls they’re making in general over worries about call costs. It’s important to reassure them that you welcome their calls and they’re not bothering you, or if they are calling at awkward times, such as when you’re working, explain that you’ll call them back as soon as you’re free. When we’re juggling several things at once it can be easy to let things slip and forget to do what we’ve said we will, yet if your elderly parent is eagerly looking forward to your call and you don’t call back, it’ll make them feel even more superfluous and unvalued.
How can Helping Hands help combat loneliness for your elderly parent
As we’ve seen, there can be many different circumstances for an elderly parent to be feeling lonely, whether it’s because of bereavement, depression, friends moving away, or feelings of ‘losing their purpose’. Unlike decades ago, families don’t always remain in the same place they grew up in which can lead to vast distances between parents and their children, leading to anxiety and worry on both sides.
One way to be sure that your elderly parent is getting the support and companionship they require is to arrange care at home with Helping Hands. Across the whole of England and Wales, we support thousands of people every day to live life as independently as possible, while remaining in the home they love and don’t want to leave. We offer care on both a visiting and live-in basis to meet everyone’s individual requirements, and with 150 branches in the UK we’re bound to have one near your loved one. Whether it’s supporting them to enjoy their local community again, popping in for a coffee and a chat to provide vital companionship, or helping around the house, our carers can be the answer to preventing loneliness. Have a chat with our friendly customer care team online or over the phone, or pop into your local branch next time you’re visiting your parent. You can find the closest branch here.