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Residents can feel lonely and isolated, whether or not they are in the midst of a global pandemic. Here are a few ways you can validate those feelings of loneliness and find new ways to connect with residents who are feeling alone.
Health Complications Due to Loneliness
Feeling sad or lonely can happen to anyone, of any age. However, seniors who have feelings of perceived loneliness can experience a variety of health challenges as a result:
- Heart disease
- Cognitive decline
- Decreased immune system
These health challenges have been linked to seniors who have feelings of perceived loneliness. This means the senior feels lonely, whether or not they are actually isolated alone or not.
Why Could Seniors Feel Lonely?
It’s important to note that seniors can feel lonely for a variety of reasons, even if they are surrounded by people in a senior living community. If you can determine why a senior feels lonely, you can then use interventions designed to meet those individual needs. Here are a few examples of why a resident could feel lonely:
- They don’t have someone to talk about a shared hobby with
- They feel like they don’t have anything in common with their peers
- They miss talking with their family members regularly
- They miss the interactions with neighbors (and mailmen, etc.) they had at home
- They are new to the senior living community and are experiencing transition trauma
- They feel like they don’t fit in with their peers (they may feel they don’t share similar physical or cognitive abilities as other residents)
- They are naturally a loner or introverted
- They are clinically depressed and are adjusting to new medications
- They don’t know how to start a new friendship with other residents
- They aren’t getting personalized attention they were used to (or wanted) at home or in the hospital
The same research that has demonstrated the physical challenges that come with feelings of perceived loneliness also offers us a general solution we can use as a template for activities: peer support. Science shows us that seniors don’t need to make new best friendships in order to feel less lonely. Instead, they need a circle of peer support and encouragement.
Finding Solutions to Loneliness
While you can’t “cure” loneliness, you can certainly try interventions that can alleviate some of the sadness that can accompany feelings of loneliness. Here are just a few ways you can encourage connections and peer support:
- Check Your New Resident Welcome Program
Make sure your community has a solid New Resident Welcome program.
- Connect Residents With Similar Interests
Use your leisure assessment to consciously connect residents who share similar interests that are more “unusual”. For example, you might have fifty residents who enjoy walking outside, but only a few that are active birdwatchers. Connect these birdwatchers so they have a chance to share their unique bond.
- Offer Invitation-only Small Group Activities
Schedule small group activities throughout your day, but don’t necessarily advertise these groups on your big calendar. Instead, make these small group activities “invitation only” where you can connect residents you feel may get along or share common interests.
- Ask Lonely Residents for Help
Ask the lonely resident you are working with if they would like to lead a small group or hobby workshop to share their talents.
- Send Handwritten Notes
Drop off handwritten notes to at-risk residents weekly.
- Pair Residents with Volunteers
Pair an at-risk resident with a volunteer; feeling connected doesn’t have to come from a relationship with another resident. It can be just as beneficial to feel connected to a volunteer. Just be sure the volunteer is long-term and visits regularly.
- Organize Video Chats with Family
Schedule video chats with a loved one
- Inform Relevant Staff & Management
Talk with your social work and nursing department regularly about at-risk residents to ensure they are receiving any needed follow-up psych or physician visits
- Start Coffee & Conversation Groups
Set up coffee dates for residents you think may get along well: have coffee and conversation starters available at a table tucked out of the loudness of your community to encourage conversation
- Sear At-Risk Residents Together
Pair at-risk residents together at tables during social events to see if they may hit it off; just be sure they aren’t bonding over negative topics, when possible.
- Create Conversation Nooks
Create conversation nooks throughout your community where residents can feel comfortable to start up conversations with others who sit down; small two-person bistro tables in quiet nooks of your community or outside are excellent places to start
- Provide Conversation Cards
Starting conversations can be difficult for many people; make it easier by having conversation starter cards on dining room tables, nursing stations, and other popular spots in your community.
- Create Door Signs for At-Risk Residents
Create a “Come On In” sign or wreath for at-risk residents where they can put it up on a hook on their apartment door that indicates they would love a visit from staff or residents. This can work wonders for residents who may not be able to name their lonely feelings or who know how to ask for help. Hanging a wreath when they are feeling open to talk can be something easy they can do. Just be sure staff know what the wreath is for and to pop in to say hello when it is hanging up.
- Evaluate Resident Support Offerings
Evaluate if you need to improve your resident support group offerings to foster connection over shared experiences or losses; work with your social work department to make this happen.
- Host Friendship Mixers
Host Friendship Mixers where residents can gather to get to know one another; encourage everyone to sit near someone they don’t know well.
Remember, residents who feel connected to others will not be at-risk for feeling lonely. You can foster connections (it doesn’t have to be a friendship) by investigating past and current interests of those you serve, and connecting those who share similar interests. Bonding over a shared experience is more effective than just having a conversation, so make your connections over an activity where possible. Anything you can do to foster connection among residents can go a long way towards their physical and mental health.
How do you find at-risk residents who may feel lonely, and then how do you work to connect them with their peers?