By Vivien Lee
One of the most challenging aspects of aging is isolation and loss of social connection. Studies done in the past few years at UCSF and at the University College London, revealed that lack of social contact — isolation — is a predictor of death. It is frightening to think that isolation might be debilitating to older adults and contributing to mortality.
Dr. Carla Perissinotto, one of the authors of the study done in 2012 at UCSF, said that one of the surprising findings of their research is that loneliness does not necessarily correlate with living alone. Loneliness can be felt in people who are fully functional, but feel empty or desolate. A caregiving spouse could feel lonely and be isolated due to his or her role. It’s not just physical isolation but emotional isolation (e.g. not feeling understood), that often drives loneliness
Both caregivers and their loved ones are at risk for feeling lonely for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s that there are so many intimate and embarrassing aspects of looking after an elderly loved one, that sharing with others seems crass or akin to a betrayal of a family member’s dignity. Or, it could simply be that family caregivers feel too busy or stressed to connect with other people. Whatever the reasons are, loneliness and caregiving often go hand-in-hand.
If you feel lonely and isolated while caring for your loved one, you are not alone. Loneliness is a feeling of isolation, even if surrounded by others. It often indicates grieving or a need to reconnect. Caregivers in a prolonged stressful situation have a 63% higher death rate than their peers of the same age.
What should you do to prevent isolation and loneliness? “Stay engaged all your life.” Linda Fodrini-Johnson, MA, MFT, CMC, advised in her writing, Isolation and Loneliness Can Be Deadly to Older Adults. She also suggested seven ways to prevent isolation and loneliness:
1) Consider values and your sense of purpose.
Pet ownership reduces loneliness
Older adults who report feelings of loneliness are at increased risk for a range of negative mental and physical health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and early mortality. Studies show that having a pet is good for seniors as it makes seniors feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. This is the reason why pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is becoming more and more popular today.
For seniors who suffer depression, pet therapy can be beneficial in many ways. It gives them an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings with a pet. Pets are good listeners and are not judgmental. Pets can help remedy loneliness and lack of purpose by providing a warm and fulfilling relationship, thus improving mental health and quality of life. At the University of Rochester Behavioral Health Center, researchers followed 830 primary care patients age 60 and older. They found pet owners were 36% less likely to report loneliness, compared to seniors without pets. The findings suggest that pet ownership may confer benefits for well-being among older adults who live alone, including attenuating feelings of loneliness and their impact on overall health.
The study did not look at the costs of having a dog or a cat, financial or otherwise. But given the results, researchers hope advocates for the elderly will consider initiatives that make it easier for seniors to own pets.
People need social interaction. Face to face or on a screen. Connectedness is not as simple as having a partner or a loved one. Identifying potential sources of social connectedness, such as pet ownership, could help us understand how to promote health and well-being in older adults.
Many of us would love to have a pet companion but cannot have one due to different constraints like space confines, busy schedules, allergies, hygiene and physical challenges.
What are some challenges around pet ownership?
How can technology help with pet therapy?
A solution comes in the form of our very own GeriJoy Companion, a virtual pet for seniors. Seniors can interact with GeriJoy’s pets by touching them through a tablet device, and can even have intelligent conversations with the pets.
The GeriJoy Companion could help reduce the workload on therapeutic animals, which can become sick and stressed working in nursing homes. Often dogs have to go on stress leave, e.g. we’ve heard of therapy dogs having to go off three out of twelve months on stress leave.
Because the GeriJoy Companion is available 24/7 to comfort and even to converse with older adults and caregivers alike, it offers a practical approach to emotional well-being. The GeriJoy Companion can even provide respite breaks for caregivers, because it is supported by the intelligence and compassion of GeriJoy’s remote care staff.
To learn more about how older adults, families, and caregivers are benefitting from the affordable, 24/7 companionship and oversight that the GeriJoy Companion provides, please read through our case studies, which cover care situations ranging from home care, to assisted living, to skilled nursing dementia care.
1) Isolation and Loneliness Can Be Deadly to Older Adults – Linda Fodrini-Johnson, MA, MFT, CMC February 12, 2014