Aging and isolation, helping elders cope with seclusion when they start losing loved ones.
I met Alene when she lived with her son, Greg and his wife. She is another elderly woman who struggled with loss and loneliness, but her story is different. When Alene became too frail for Greg and his wife to provide the hands-on care she needed, they made the decision to move her to an assisted living facility. Greg talked often to me about the ongoing discussions with his mom before making the final decision. Alene was adamant about not going to one of those places. They searched for a facility that would offer their mom privacy, yet round-the-clock monitoring.
During the move, Greg joked to me that his mom ‘wished he would die on his next birthday.’ After three months, Alene has settled in, made new friends, and is involved in many of the activities offered at the care facility. Greg shakes his head at the tantrums his mother indulged in before the move. Now she regularly plays cards with the other ladies. She raves about the food, the staff, and how happy she is.
This isn’t typical. Studies show that adults 85 years and older represent just 1.9% of the population. They find it difficult to make new friends when life’s circumstances keep them housebound, or when physical illness or disability limits their ability to socialize.
Dave and Joan are seventy-five and eighty years old, respectively. Joan worries what she’ll do if Dave dies before she does. They do everything together: church, small group, travel, babysitting grandkids. We talked about what her life would be like if she was alone. Their social life revolves around church, family, and each other.
“I wouldn’t do half the things we do now,” Joan said. “I’d be too nervous to drive six hours to our daughter’s house by myself.”
“What about making new friends,” I asked her.”
Joan shook her head. “I’m too old to make new friends.”
Like Joan, many older people talk themselves into isolation.
“I’ll be a fifth wheel.”
“It’s not the same without (my husband/wife/best friend).”
“It’s too much of a bother. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
In America, people 75 or older who live alone have 2.5 times the mortality rate of those with companions. Mary Pipher, Another Country, 170
Sometimes we must ask the question, Is it time for my mom or dad to move in? If your parent isn’t able to be completely independent, yet is healthy enough to care for himself, combining households can be a solution.
Peace of mind. Your loved one won’t worry if he or she should fall in the middle of the night. You won’t have those jarring midnight phone calls.
Generational sharing. Children learn from having grandma or grandpa as a close part of the family. When I was young, my grandparents lived with us. Nini (what we called her) taught me to sew. Later on, she helped teach me to drive.
When I was in fourth grade, we had to write a report about our family. I said there were seven people in my family. My friend leaned over and said, “You don’t really have seven, you only have five. Grandparents don’t count.” Poor child, that one.
Financial assistance. This works for both you and your loved one. Being under one roof means only one house payment and one set of utility bills.
Too many cooks in the kitchen. If you’re a daughter-in-law caring for your husband’s mother, this can literally be truth.
“She criticized everything I cooked,” says Doreen. “My Japanese mother-in-law didn’t like the way I made the traditional dishes. She harped about my housecleaning and how we raised our kids.” This is a common scenario.
Lack of privacy. I like leaving my mother’s house after fixing dinner and eating with her. I go to my own home, put my feet up, and spend some quiet time reading or writing. Adding another person to the household can dramatically shift the personality of your home. I wonder what life would be like if my mother lived with me.
In a recent Money Crashers blog, they stress the need for everyone to have a private space. Living in close quarters can produce tension, so always make sure that whoever needs an emotional timeout gets one. If the home is too small for everyone to have a dedicated space, think about scheduling private time for each member of the family. Grandma can unwind in the den after dinner while you and your spouse relax in the living room.
If living together isn’t an option, what can you do to help your aging loved one cope with loneliness when their spouse and friends die?
What You Can Do
As caregivers, it’s imperative to understand how we can help our aging parents deal with the loss of community.
Listen and observe. “We often don’t listen enough to the people we love,” laments Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty
Don’t tell your loved one they shouldn’t feel lonely. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling that your parent shouldn’t feel that way because they have you. Imagine if you were never able to talk to anyone except your spouse. As much as I love my husband, I need others to talk to. Ask your loved one if there’s someone they’d like to invite in for coffee. Or take the initiative and ask someone from your church or small group to stop by. Sometimes a fresh face can make a difference.
Develop a strategy to defeat seclusion. Ask your parent what she or he would like to do. If they are ambulatory, take them to lunch or to the mall. My mother loves to shop. When most of her friends died, she lost her shopping buddies. Although shopping isn’t my favorite pastime, I take her out once a month to pick up some things like the special dried fruit she loves from one particular store, or to help her decide on a new tablecloth. In return, she treats me to Starbucks. We sit and chat, and people-watch. She doesn’t feel as isolated.
Let them teach you. Sometimes when my husband and I run out of things to talk about over dinner with my mom, I’ll ask her to tell about something that happened when she was a child, growing up in the Depression. Although I’ve heard many of the stories more than a few times, it’s fun for her to tell them again. I’ll ask about what it was like for her and my dad to be stationed far away from family during World War II.
Engage other family members: If you are the sole caregiver for your aging parent, urge other family members to reach out. Something as simple as sending a card, dropping off a little present of their favorite food, or calling for thirty minutes a couple of times a week can go a long way to making a senior feel loved and connected to the rest of the family. I’m always appreciative of the times when my brother, Ken, drives from the Bay Area to visit our mom. My oldest brother, Gary, brings lunch once in a while. When Mike and I eat dinner with my mom, we can have something new to talk about.
The Christian Perspective
How can we help our elderly loved ones depend upon the sufficiency of Christ, rather than on us?
The Bible is clear in Titus 2:3-5. “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”
What a wonderful opportunity for an older person to disciple a younger one. When I was in my thirties, Harry and Dorothy, an older couple in the church took Mike and me under their wings. They regularly prayed for us. Almost every Sunday, they’d approach us at church with these words, “I have a Scripture for you.” When I had cancer, they were the first to come to our house and pray with me. They brought words of encouragement, while most people only wanted to talk about the diagnosis and prognosis.
After Harry died, Dorothy continued to mentor the younger women. No longer distracted by household duties, she used her time to pour into the lives of other women. She eventually became unable to leave her home, but she still prayed fervently for her church body.
Though my mother is house-bound and legally blind, she regularly prays for my oldest brother’s salvation, and for his wife. She prays for my daughter, son-in-law, and their kids, serving as missionaries in Vanuatu. Her prayer list is long. I’m grateful to know she keeps me in her prayers.
Pause and consider:
What are some practical steps you can take to help your aging loved one deal with loneliness?
Think about how you might feel if your best friend passed away. How can you show empathy to your parent during their grief?
 U S Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, http://www.aoa.acl.gov/aging_statistics/future_growth/future_growth.aspx
 8 Tips for Multigenerational Families – Living With Parents When You Have Kids By Jacqueline Curtis, Moneycrashers.com
 Tessina, Tina. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (January 26, 2014)