Ageism is alive and well in the U.S. Take Elaine, (name changed) a 90-year-old woman who lives alone in a major city back east. She and I developed a casual email relationship over the last few years ever since my first book was published. Recently, she shared with me that she’d reported her symptoms of cognitive decline, back pain, and other problems to her primary care physician. According to Elaine, he said, “Those are all a part of getting older.”
Elaine felt dismissed, not taken seriously, and she continues to cope with symptoms that truly worry her, not to mention her discomfort and pain. If her emails are a sign of cognitive decline, I’m not sure, but there is a change from five years ago. Now her words are half sentences, and sometimes a list of single words strung together, one of which recently was “despair.”
I’ve encouraged Elaine to reach out to her adult children who live states away. I’ve sent her resources for older seniors in her area. If she’s not up to making the calls, I don’t know, but I keep trying. I recently sent one of her adult children one of my books with a note explaining that although I don’t know Elaine very well, it does seem that she needs help.
Elaine’s story of isolation and loneliness is heartbreaking, to say the least. She’s not the only one either.
The Huffington Post article, How our broken healthcare system treats the elderly, is a sobering look at how older people are brushed off and ignored simply because of their age.
Our healthcare system is broken, but our older population can’t just be forgotten, left to fend for themselves.
Take our neighbor, Dorothy (name changed) who is in her 80’s. My husband and I look out for her and have helped her a number of times through the years. Before she had 24/7 caregivers, something most cannot afford, I took her to the hospital after a bad fall, drove her and her dog to the vet hospital after her dog had a stroke, among other things. My husband assisted with an air conditioning repairperson who tried to sell Dorothy an expensive new unit that she didn’t need. Her children do visit regularly. But unless you’re around all the time it’s not always easy to see what is really going on. And I think Dorothy hides some of the truth from her children as she feels embarrassed that she’s no longer independent. After talking with her son, he accompanied Dorothy to see her internist for a medication review of the 17 daily medications she was taking. Thankfully, this doctor was on top of things and weeded out unnecessary medicines.
Some older people aren’t so lucky and end up in nursing homes dealing with polypharmacy, overly medicated and barely able to function.
Many older adults feel marginalized and lonely, according to The New York Times article, Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness. According to the study cited in the article, loneliness and isolation are associated with increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone. “The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence is a critical public health problem,” stated Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a UCSF geriatrician.
I’ve written about loneliness in seniors before and how it can be hazardous to one’s health.
Whether Elaine’s recent exacerbation of cognitive and physical problems are a sign of increased loneliness ever since a local coffee shop and market closed, a place where she used to meet with other older people, I don’t know. But my guess is that it is.
The AARP Foundation lists risk factors for isolation.They are:
- Living alone.
- Mobility or sensory impairment.
- Major life transition such as losing a job, retirement, death of a spouse, etc.
- Low income, limited resources.
- Psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities.
- Inadequate social support.
- Loss of social network.
- Loss of transportation.
Ideas to Help
- Transportation. Lack of transportation is a primary cause of social isolation, according to A Place for Mom. Perhaps companies like Lift or Uber could create a nonprofit arm to drive older adults to social activities, medical appointments, places of worship, and more.
- Volunteer. If you care for an older person, perhaps you could suggest volunteering for an organization or two that she/he feels connected to. This could promote a sense of purpose and increase social interaction. My Godmother, Martha, volunteered for a major nonprofit organization on a regular basis after she retired and it helped her feel connected to people of all ages.
- Mentor. If an older adult had a career/profession that she/he is retired from they might consider becoming a mentor to share their expertise and experience. My Mentor Advisor matches mentors with startups, organizations, entrepreneurs and companies who need them.
- Place of worship. If you know an older adult who is religious or spiritual, perhaps suggest that they attend a church, synagogue or other faith-based community. Many religious/spiritual communities assist older adults in many ways, especially if hospitalized or in need of delivered meals
- Vision and hearing tests. Not being able to hear conversations is a major barrier for social connection. Same with vision. If you know of an older adult with these possible issues, suggest or assist with her/him getting tests for hearing and vision.
- Healthcare professionals. Doctors, nurses, PAs, NPs, and more, can identify isolated seniors and facilitate resources. Check in with your older loved one’s healthcare professionals.
- Counseling. Counseling for older adults can be helpful. Not just to provide someone to talk with but to provide resources and to help with problem solving. Sometimes just having someone to talk to can ease depression.
- Virtual Counseling Network is a nonprofit program that offers resources for finding help with life transitions, questions and challenges. They are available online, by phone and in person. I have no experience with this company so I can’t vouch for them.
The Friendship Line (Run by the Institute of Ageing) is a 24-hour, toll-free, loneliness call-in line that is also a suicide prevention hotline.
The Savvy Senior is full of resources for older adults.
The Campaign to End Loneliness: connections in older age