While elder loneliness is generally a well-known issue, it is frequently misunderstood, underestimated, or overlooked.
The threat of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing has forced people to isolate themselves from loved ones, those in need of care, and particularly the elderly. As we have all seen or experienced first-hand over the recent weeks, these changes have adversely affected the elderly community in the most critical ways.
One such way is loneliness. There is extensive research indicating that loneliness can have real and tangible impacts on our health. Loneliness is found to contribute to:
-Depression, or depressive symptoms
–Elevated blood pressure
-Aggressive behaviour, impulsivity, and social anxiety
–A weakened immune system
–Placing additional stress on the body
–Reduced health benefits from sleep
Some of the more sinister implications pin loneliness as a “Risk factor for cognitive decline and the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease”, and it is even recognised to contribute towards a premature death. Elders experiencing “Extreme loneliness” can be up to 26% more likely to suffer from premature death.
While there is detailed evidence highlighting these connections, please remember that these are contributing factors – an individual may suffer from multiple or none of these effects depending on the individual and the severity of loneliness.
People feel lonely when there is a discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual social relations (1). In other words, we get lonely when there is a difference between the kind of social connections we have (or may not have), and what kind of connections we want.
In the context of loneliness, we can break social relationships into three types:
-High-level (close family members, partners, etc)
-Mid-level (friends, work colleagues, etc)
-Low-level (these give us a sense of “community” like a neighbourhood, school, workplace, etc)
Individuals can begin feeling lonely regardless of whether they are physically alone or not, for the same reasons we can feel lonely in a crowd of people. Loneliness comes from the need for social connection rather just having others around us. Australian surveys have found that around 1 in 12 people of 65 years or older report being socially isolated, yet twice as many report feeling lonely.
We can become lonely whenever we feel we are lacking in any one of the social connections that come from high-level, mid-level, or low-level relationships. Generally, we only need to feel that a single one of these relationships isn’t present enough in our lives to start feeling lonely. For a few examples, different individuals can:
–Have strong mid and low-level relationships, but feel lonely without a stronger connection to family
–Be happy with only having high-level social relationships
–Feel lonely without stronger connections to family members
–Be happy even without the need for any kinds of social connections
On top of the health-related risk factors that the elderly community is more likely to have, they are also more likely to experience loneliness than the younger population. This, along with recent social distancing rules creates a dangerous combination that directly affects elders. While parts of that combination are unavoidable, we all have the tools to combat this at our fingertips.
How Technology Can Help
Technology and the internet can keep us connected with friends, family, and the wider community even when we are required to physically distance ourselves from others. Adopting technology as a way to continue social relationships and connect with people can make a monumental difference to how we feel, and greatly help to reduce feelings of loneliness. Some simple and accessible ways elders can use the internet to break down the barriers of social isolation include:
–Connecting with friends and family via phone calls
–Using video chats to see loved ones and friends
-Texting or messaging to keep up to date with others
–Creating group chats with loved ones or friends
–Joining online communities or forums
Over the years, technology and forms of online communication have been made more and more approachable and easy to use – even for the types who aren’t tech-savvy. If you’ve tried to connect with others online in the past but found it to be too complicated, give it another go! Technology has come a long way to accommodate those who aren’t great with tech.
Here are some fun suggestions to keep you in contact with friends and family:
–Play some online games together – Games like SCRABBLE for mobile, Online UNO, GeoGuessr, or trivia, are great ways to keep you engaged with others.
–Have a virtual gathering – Organise a virtual dinner party with video chats, or have a watch party.
–Organise regular virtual meeting/gatherings with family – Set up a regular date to have group chats or virtual dinners with loved ones
Alternatively, online communities and forums are an excellent way to connect with like-minded people, talk about something you love, and feel apart of something bigger. For example, a person who enjoys gardening will find hundreds of thriving online communities dedicated to gardening, plants, and everything green.
Technology and the internet excel at giving us a way to communicate and engage with others, but it’s also paramount in maintaining a healthy body and mind for the elderly. Ignoring the need for social interaction in elders can have long-term consequences, but technology can help with more than just loneliness.
As Australians age, more and more of us end up living alone. Around 40% of Australians between the ages of 65 and 84 live alone, and for those over the age of 84, that number creeps up to 51%. Just like loneliness, living alone at old ages can present significant risks for several reasons.
With age, the physical condition of our bodies, general health, and capacity to endure injuries gradually deteriorates. Roughly 30% of individuals over 65 years will experience one or more falls per year. Shockingly, they account for “40% of injury-related deaths” and approximately “one per cent of total deaths in this age group [65+ years]”.
Events like falls and other sudden or unpredictable health events greatly hinder the elderly community. With so many elderly people living alone, this creates an even larger cause for concern now that the help and assistance of loved ones have been restricted due to COVID-19 isolation.
Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) are critical for reducing the prevalence of elder-related hospitalisations and calling for support in an emergency. Following a fall, elders can remain trapped on the ground sometimes for hours without help. PERS can give you peace of mind knowing that loved ones and carers are only the push of a button away from help.
Designed specifically for use outside the home, the Go Pendant (far left) is a mobile medical alert alarm that can be taken anywhere with suitable Telstra cellular network coverage. The device is worn around the neck, and when activated, it sends your exact GPS location to the Care Team from APERS. Please note that we are no longer selling the Go Pendant, as we are waiting for the 4G version to become available.
The right three devices are all a part of an emergency response system designed for use indoors. Using the button on the middle of the neck pendant or wristwatch device, the emergency system is activated. A signal is sent from the watch or pendant to the white base unit, and then to the 24/7 APERS Care Team.