i Advance Senior Care
Part 1 of a 2-part series on addressing the loneliness epidemic in senior care
The social distancing requirements of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the prevalence of loneliness in senior care. But the issue is deep-rooted and existed long before the pandemic began. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work in 2018 found that about 70% of residents in three public senior housing communities in St. Louis were moderately or severely lonely. The high rates of loneliness existed despite the fact that residents had access to resources, support programs, and activities that were intended help to reduce loneliness.
Loneliness persists and can be widespread in senior care, and winters can be particularly difficult. In this two-part series, we’ll highlight a variety of solutions that can help senior care facilities address the problem.
Why Loneliness Is a Growing Problem
Social distancing restrictions may have largely been lifted, but loneliness in senior care persists and continues to grow. Chris Brickler, senior care expert and founder of MyndVR, explains that loneliness is part of a larger issue of the high level of growth in the senior population. “In the coming few years, around the world and in the United States, our age demographics will significantly shift, with people over the age of 65 outnumbering those under 18,” he says. “In 2017, the US Administration for Community Living found that by 2060 there will be around 98 million US residents over 65, who will all be dealing with health concerns of some kind, loneliness among them.”
Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that there will be fewer young people entering the workforce as caretakers. This will result in caretakers being spread thin, which means they may be unable to provide all seniors with the attention and support they need.
Brickler explains that the many changes seniors undergo impacts their loneliness. As seniors age, they lose spouses, friends, and family, and are less able to drive or go out and socialize. Such situations often lead to loneliness.
“Loneliness creates health issues for people of any age, but advanced age of course has a compound effect,” he says. “Chronic diseases, muscular deterioration, and the risk of heart attack and stroke are all affected by a person’s level of activity, and this is especially the case for aging adults.
“It’s also commonly understood that poor health and loneliness have a bi-directional effect: social isolation worsens health, and worsened health can create more social isolation,” Brickler says, adding, “Seniors can become extremely withdrawn as a result, the effects of their mental state contributing to rapid declines in their cognitive and physical health, detracting from the length and quality of their lives.”
Steps to Address Loneliness in Senior Care Residents
When it comes to addressing resident loneliness, Brickler says it’s important that caregivers take the time to build relationships with residents. “It’s important that residents feel as though the people they interact with treat them as the unique individuals they are,” he says. “It can be as simple as learning a little about their family, their past, or what they’re looking forward to that day or week. For seniors who are feeling lonely and isolated, even a little goes a long way.”
A focus on person-centered care is also helpful. Brickler explains that it’s important to understand the different ways that individuals respond to activities. A more outgoing resident may thoroughly enjoy three group meals and two communal activities a day, but a resident who prefers to socialize one-on-one might find that same schedule exhausting and could become even more withdrawn.
“When approaching the complex issue of loneliness, it’s incredibly important to figure out what someone’s individual needs might be based on their history and preferences,” explains Brickler. “This creates a roadmap for more effective care, ultimately helping caretakers deal with the challenges of loneliness more effectively. If caretakers don’t spend the time to figure out what works for residents on an individual level, they will be missing out on an opportunity to deliver more effective care.”
Brickler also encourages senior care organizations to stay aware of innovations in the space. Given the growing awareness around the challenges that senior residents and their caregivers face, more people are working to address these issues. “The more caregivers can research and determine what new technology or products can benefit their residents, the more likely they are to discover something truly impactful that can make their work easier, either by benefiting residents directly, or by helping caregivers do their job more efficiently,” says Brickler.
Using Technology to Address Loneliness
Thanks to advances in technology, senior care facilities have even more tools to help fight loneliness. Brickler explains that assessment, connectivity, and therapeutic tools have undergone tremendous advancements in the last few years, and there is also growing understanding of the value of digital therapeutics.
“Being able to collect precise health data on mood and wellbeing using eye tracking technology or vocal pattern analysis, for example, can help determine what a senior might be going through, and what an appropriate remedial measure might be,” he says. “Immersive experiences using Virtual Reality can provide a scalable and efficient tool to improve mood, reduce loneliness, and improve overall wellbeing.”
Virtual reality allows residents to travel anywhere in the world, and their loved ones can join them on their journeys, all without leaving the comfort of their homes. “The impact this has on seniors is incredible,” says Brickler. “Some studies have found that around 90% of older adults who participated in travel-related Virtual Reality content felt more relaxed and reported a higher level of well-being after their adventures.”
Such technology can help residents forge valuable connections and interactions with others. In part two of this series, we’ll focus on how the innovative use of peer groups also helps create such connections.