Humans thrive on being part of communities, interacting with family and friends and having interests outside the home.
Nevertheless, despite advances in technology and improved communication channels, there are clear signs that social isolation and loneliness is on the rise. Social isolation refers to a lack of contact with friends, family and the community. Older people living in residential care communities are especially at risk of being socially isolated.
Some common groups of people at risk of social isolation include:
Research suggests that poor social connectedness can have serious consequences on the health and well-being of individuals. We are social beings by nature. 'Belonging' to a network of friends, a faith community or a large extended family is related to increased longevity and improved welfare.
The positive impact that social interaction can have on health and emotional well-being is well-documented. Some of the documented benefits of regular social interaction include:
Some of the reasons that can make people feel socially isolated include:
Social Inclusion refers to the positive steps activity professionals can take to involve individuals in community participation and to cater for individual choices. It recognizes that residents have the right to autonomy.
Keep in mind that some people seek solitude - which is the state of being alone by choice. People who enjoy solitude are common in residential care; they are called 'loners'. It can be very difficult for activity professionals to lure them out of their rooms and/or coax them into attending programmed activities. Their wishes should be respected, once depression and other medical diagnosis have been ruled out.
Activity professionals play an important role in helping their clients cope with social isolation. Planning and designing a broad selection of appropriate activities to meet an individual's needs and interests is essential.
Many approaches to social inclusion have been evolving over the years. Each approach involves a multitude of possible interventions to support social inclusion. Here are some examples:
1. Volunteers Visiting Program
It is important for every Leisure and Health Coordinator to start a Volunteer's Program. Alternatively, join a government volunteer's agency or a charity group's volunteers network to provide your clients with a range of social and emotional support. Volunteers can have valuable experience and lifelong skills to share as well as offering friendship and companionship.
2. Inter-generational Programs
Inter-generational activities bring together people of different ages to share an activity. The activities should be well planned to achieve specific goals and held on a regular basis. You can start with your local schools; primary and high schools. You may also contact the Playgroup Association and invite infants and their mothers to visit on a regular basis. The liaison between elders and children is of mutual benefit.
3. Gender-specific programs
Residential care facilities often have a bias towards female recreation activities; perhaps it is because females often outnumber males. It could also be that men often seem uninterested; but are they? Males are usually 'hard-wired' to gravitate towards boxing, race cars, action movies, army talk, home-improvement, furniture restoring, war documentaries, and many other 'male' activities. Ladies would at the most, tolerate such activities. Gender-specific activities twice a week could correct the bias and encourage males to bond with one another and share stories.
4. Health & Fitness
Encouraging people to stay active as they get older is fundamental to healthy aging. Exercises suitable to residential care includes yoga, tai chi, seated exercises, movement to music, stretching and walks. The amount of physical activity required depends on the age and level of health. It is worth noting that evidence-based research has shown that reduced muscle strength and gait and impaired balance can be modified using regular exercise.
5. Horticultural Program
A horticultural garden program is an ideal venue for reminiscing and building friendships. Start a garden project with the assistance of residents in regards to design, location, construction and type of garden. Leisure and Health professionals can approach local garden clubs or botanical gardens for advice and assistance. Involve relatives, friends and volunteers to create a sense accomplishment for the whole community.
6. Social Networking Program
Introducing elder people to information technology is a contentious issue but it need not be. Making relevant technology more accessible to elders can be an appealing and satisfying challenge. Tools such as Email, Skype and Facebook can bring families together despite long distances.