Social supports key to aging well mentally

You’ve probably already heard or seen how prevalent isolation and loneliness are amongst our senior population.

You’ve probably already heard or seen how prevalent isolation and loneliness are amongst our senior population. It’s more prevalent than people realize. Social opportunities and social behaviour are two major opponents of isolation, loneliness and depression. And the paradox of depression is that during this most important time to reach out to people in your social circle, it’s often the feeling of wanting to be alone that prevails and dictates behaviours.

When you think of social supports for seniors in our community, what do you think of? Family and friends? Neighbours? The church? Yes, those are three common ones, for sure. But social supports refer to much more than that.

There are four main pillars of social supports for our seniors. They are emotional, instrumental, informational, and financial. Emotional supports are critical and usually come from close family and friends. Instrumental support refers to task-based support like housework, transportation, shopping and personal care. Informational support may be advice, or decision-making support on a wide variety of topics. Financial support doesn’t only refer to funds, as it is more commonly assistance with banking or even housing.

People who are unfamiliar with seniors often think that living in a retirement community like independent living or assisted living automatically ensures that the senior will be social, having fun, and just plain loving life. But this is a false assumption. It’s just as easy to sit in one’s suite and watch TV as it is to sit at home and watch TV. It’s just as easy to skip exercise class downstairs as it is to skip going to the fitness centre. The fact of the matter is, it’s actually easier to isolate oneself when there are barriers such as immobility or pain. It’s easier to be withdrawn or fall into patterns of isolation when there are significant barriers, no matter where one lives, or who one’s friends or family are.

It’s important that if you know someone who is becoming more withdrawn and isolated that you treat it as a potentially serious pattern.

So many articles that are trying to be helpful suggest proper diet, exercise, and being more social — like joining a book club, or starting a new hobby — as helpful recommendations. But let’s be honest here — those written words and suggestions are not creating any action. It’s not like saying, “Oh, just join a book club or mentor a young person” will effectively combat isolation and loneliness. Not to sound too cynical — the articles are trying to be informative — but in my experience it takes a lot more than that to break the isolation/loneliness/depression cycle. It takes a very caring close friend(s) or family member(s) to support the individual through the process of becoming more social and more connected to social opportunities. It’s involved. It’s hands on. It’s important. And based on how much free time the friend or family member has, it may take hiring a companion/caregiver to build a great relationship and attend regularly with the individual to help overcome barriers — like those mentioned above.

A great first step to support the affected person would be to talk to the individual and then coordinate a discussion about it with their doctor, ideally with a loved one present.

Two other helpful resources are the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health (www.ccsmh.ca), or Duncan Mental Health/Seniors Outreach Team at 250-709-3040.

Chris Wilkinson is the owner/GM for Nurse Next Door Home Care Services for Cowichan and central Vancouver Island.   For more info visit www.NurseNextDoor.com or for questions or a free in-home caring consult call 250-748-4357, or email Cowichan@NurseNextDoor.com

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