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HOW TO SPOT THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF LONELINESS IN THE ELDERLY

Loneliness can affect us at any age in life. However, our elderly loved ones can be especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. The experience of loneliness can negatively impact an elderly person’s mental and physical wellbeing.

In this article, we’ll explore the signs, causes and effects of loneliness and what you can do if your loved one is being affected by it.

What causes loneliness

Many factors can cause feelings of loneliness for an older adult. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Bereavement and grief. The loss of a loved one is always challenging. Losing a long-term companion in later life can be a catalyst for feelings of loneliness for an elderly individual, especially if they don’t have a strong support network around them.
  • Physical isolation. Reduced mobility, geographical location, limited access to transportation, or living alone can all exacerbate feelings of loneliness for an elderly person. Older adults may face increased barriers to getting out, maintaining social connections and engaging in activities outside the home.
  • Health issues. Poor physical and mental health can limit an older person’s ability to engage with friends, family and social activities. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation can negatively impact someone’s mental and physical wellbeing and exacerbate existing conditions
  • Major life transitions. Significant milestones in an older individual’s life, such as retirement, relocation or change in family dynamics, can disrupt their social and support networks and routines. This may impact their sense of identity or purpose, triggering feelings of loneliness. Changes in financial circumstances due to major life events like retirement can also limit an older adult’s socialising ability.

Signs of loneliness and social isolation to look out for

Now that you understand the circumstances that cause or increase feelings of social isolation for older people, it’s essential to know the signs and symptoms of loneliness in your loved ones.

Social withdrawal and increased isolation

Feeling lonely can cause someone to withdraw from social activities, hobbies, or interactions with friends and family. They may avoid social gatherings or decline invitations to events.

Because of this social withdrawal, they may spend extended periods alone without engaging in social interactions or activities outside the home. They may have limited contact with others and may not have regular visitors.

Expressing feelings of emptiness or sadness

If your loved one has verbalised feelings of loneliness, emptiness or sadness, this is a clear indication that they’re experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

Loss of interest and motivation

If your elderly friend or relative is showing a loss of interest in activities or hobbies that they once enjoyed, this could be an indicator that they’re experiencing loneliness.

Changes in sleep patterns

Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or excessive daytime napping can indicate an elderly person is experiencing loneliness and low mood.

Changes in eating habits and body weight

Changes in appetite are not uncommon for older adults. However, rapid weight loss and a lack of interest in food or refusal to eat could be linked to loneliness and feelings of depression.

Decline in mental health

Loneliness and social isolation can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Signs of depression, such as feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or suicidal ideation, may be more pronounced in lonely elderly individuals.

Decline in physical health

There’s a strong correlation between someone’s mental and physical wellbeing. If a loved one is experiencing loneliness, you may also notice a decline in their physical health. This could be increased frailty, an existing health condition getting worse or the onset of physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches.

What you can do to support an elderly friend or relative experiencing loneliness

Knowing how best to support your loved one can be challenging if you have a busy life or don’t live near them. Here are our top tips for supporting someone who is experiencing loneliness.

Make regular communication

Whether this is popping in for a cup of tea and a chat or making a regular phone or video call, keeping in touch can help an elderly friend or relative feel connected and valued.

Listen empathetically

Take the time to listen to their feelings and experiences without judgment. Validate their emotions and offer empathy and understanding. Sometimes, loneliness can come from not feeling ‘heard’ or understood.

Encourage social activities

If an older person feels lonely, they may lose interest in social activities or feel disconnected from what they can engage with. Encourage them to find and participate in social activities or groups tailored to their interests. This could be hobby clubs, religious gatherings, local social events or volunteer opportunities.

They may need some initial help to find something they enjoy or take the first steps to join. You could offer to accompany them if they feel hesitant to go alone.

Explore community resources

There may be local resources targeted at supporting elderly community members. These can include support groups, tailored social events or programs offering transportation assistance or meal delivery services.

Use a home-based care service

If you cannot support your elderly friend or relative from day to day, or you want to top up the support you can offer, you can consider a home-based care service. Care assistants can help with everything from medication support to practical tasks around the home or offering companionship care, where a care assistant can pop in to see your loved one and accompany them to appointments or on an arranged outing.

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MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES IN OLDER ADULTS

Patient with carer - Comfort Care at Home

Common mental health issues for the older adults and what you can do to support them

Poor mental health can affect people of all ages. However, our older loved ones can be particularly susceptible to mental health problems due to several factors. In this article, we’ll cover which mental health issues older people are most at risk from and what types of care and support they may need if they are experiencing mental health challenges.

Is mental ill health common in later life?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 14% of adults over the age of 60 experience mental health challenges. Whilst ageing doesn’t mean a loved one will definitely experience poor mental health, it’s certainly not uncommon (although it may be less talked about).

There are specific vulnerabilities that older adults face that can increase their risk of developing a mental health problem. These include health problems such as reduced mobility and chronic pain, social isolation and loneliness, stresses from reduced income, reduced sense of purpose post-retirement and an increased occurrence of loss and bereavement.

Which mental health issues affect the older adults?

The most common mental health conditions that older individuals face are depression and anxiety disorders.

Depression can be triggered by factors such as chronic illness, loss of loved ones, or social isolation. Anxiety Disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or phobias can be exacerbated by health concerns or life changes.

Other conditions which can contribute to mental ill health

  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, is a progressive neurocognitive disorder that primarily affects older adults, leading to memory loss, impaired reasoning and changes in behaviour. The distress that the condition can cause can contribute to poor mental health.
  • Loneliness and social isolation: Many older individuals struggle with feelings of loneliness and social isolation, which can negatively impact mental health and wellbeing, contributing to conditions like depression and anxiety.
  • Bereavement and grief: The loss of a spouse, family member, or friend can trigger profound grief and mourning in older adults, leading to depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness.
  • Substance abuse, including alcohol and prescription medication misuse, can occur among older individuals, often as a coping mechanism for dealing with pain, stress, or emotional distress.
  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia and other sleep conditions are common among older adults, often due to changes in sleep patterns, medical conditions, or medication side effects, which can exacerbate existing mental health issues.

What types of care and treatment are available

If you think a loved one may be experiencing issues with their mental health, encouraging them to speak to their doctor, nurse or care assistant is an essential first step. GPs can prescribe any necessary medication and signpost other therapeutic services.

Here are some of the treatment and support options that are available to older adults:

Medication

There are a range of medications available to treat the symptoms of low mood, anxiety and depression. A medical professional will be able to talk through the options with you and your loved one.

Therapy

Talking therapies can be beneficial for older individuals struggling with mental health problems. The NHS offers several forms of talking therapy (and private options are available, too). A healthcare professional can assess which type of therapy would be best for your loved one and refer them to an appropriate service.

Types of talking therapy include

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aims to help individuals look at and change how they think and behave. It can be helpful for those stuck in a negative mindset or have negative thoughts, beliefs and behaviours, as it works on the principle that these can affect how we feel.
  • Counselling is talking therapy that creates a safe space to discuss problems and feelings. Trained counsellors will listen and empathise. They won’t give advice but can support and guide those with negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT) or dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) are therapies that look at the link between depression and an individual’s relationships. Older adults are still at risk of struggling with their mental health due to the cumulative effects of their life experiences and personal relationships.

Support groups

As older adults are particularly susceptible to the impact of loneliness and social isolation, support groups can be a great option, both for the therapeutic and social benefits. These are typically available in person, but online and over-the-phone options may also be available.

Home-based support

A home care provider can offer all types of support to your loved one if they’re struggling with their mental health. They can provide practical help with tasks like taking medication, ensuring the home is clean and tidy and cooking healthy meals. They can also offer companionship care to support an individual’s mental and physical wellbeing.