The state of loneliness in old age is best described by Shel Silverstein, the American author of children’s books, in the story titled “The Little Boy and the Old Man”.
Here’s how the story unfolds…
Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too.” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy,”I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
Loneliness and health issues affect millions of India’s seniors every day. The tragedy is that as per UN reports, in the absence of welfare measures, more than 200 million Indians aged 60 and above with suffer from chronic illnesses by 2050. Isolation and neglect will lead to serious physical illnesses and mental health issues such as depression, especially among the elderly poor and women.
The loss of income and recognition in old age, the dependence on family for support, isolation within the four walls of the room without a meaningful social role and the burden of free time available are matters of great concern to the elderly. It is important that the elderly and the families that they are dependent on learn about the dangers of isolation and how loneliness can be minimized through better integration within the family and in society.
Here are some ways to deal with loneliness and isolation among seniors:
Make them feel useful
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by seniors is the loss of recognition and self-worth within the family and in society. Without a job, and income they consider themselves a burden on their families. It is important to make them feel valued by giving them a sense of purpose.
There are a variety of ways by which seniors can be given a sense of purpose. Perhaps one purpose they enjoy most is the chance to be responsible for nurturing and growing their grandchildren. The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is special.
Family members could also involve seniors in discussing problems and other challenges facing the family and inviting their point of view and suggestions.
If the elders are keen on taking up certain responsibilities in the house, they should be encouraged to do so. These could include tasks such as banking work, handling bills, maintaining accounts etc. Nothing should be forced upon them or else it will be seen as a burden.
Get seniors involved in community welfare initiatives
Seniors can also join apartment residents/ owners societies and participate in activities such as building maintenance, security, purchases, gardening, sports and the celebration of festive or cultural events.
Seniors with the requisite skills can coach the kids of the building in sport or even conduct tutorial classes in Math, Science or impart social skills in Debating, Current Affairs and more.
Involvement in social welfare activities related to educating the poor, blood collection drives, health camps for the poor, protecting the environment and cleanliness drives in the neighbourhood can also help seniors by giving them a new purpose in life.
Help them engage in hobbies
One of the biggest challenges faced by seniors is the burden of time. After years of toiling long hours at work, they suddenly have a surplus of time with nothing productive to do. Seniors must be encouraged to engage in their interests or develop new interests and hobbies. These could include stimulating individual activities such as reading, painting, baking and gardening to social activities such as attending religious functions, organizing cultural and festive events in the apartment complex and participating in local community initiatives in the locality.
Exercise is good
Regular exercise is good for seniors. It can take the form of brisk walks in the morning and evening or simple yoga exercises. Apart from increasing body flexibility and strength, the medical benefits of exercise in managing lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity is well known.
Laughter clubs are a great way to keep depression away as it is a fun way to interact socially with other.
Encourage freelance work, part time work or work from home
In Western economies, it is fairly common for seniors with the requisite skills and expertise to work even in their 70s. This is particularly true for sectors such as banking, financial services, medical practice etc. A lot of seniors in India are also working now after their retirement. Where health permits, it is a great idea to have the seniors take up part time jobs and consultancies or work from home assignments.
Provide for healthcare
Old age is usually accompanied with illnesses and health issues. These could include dental, vision and hearing related problems to other more serious geriatric issues such as dementia, heart disease and cancers.
It is important to be regular with doctor visits and preventive health checks. Certain illnesses such as hearing problems or issues related to incontinence need to be addressed with sensitivity as the senior should not feel embarrassed about it in public.
While the lack of funds for medical treatment is the biggest hurdle in the country, the patient should not be made to feel like a burden nor should the senior be neglected.
Treat for insomnia
With advancing age, it becomes difficult to have a deep and restful sleep. Sleep is fragmented and disturbed by having to go to the bathroom frequently. The problem gets compounded with illnesses such as depression. Providing treatment for insomnia can help elders improve their quality of sleep.
Encourage outings with family and others
Unfortunately, many families make the mistake of assuming that seniors are not keen on family outings such as dining out or going out on picnics or visiting friends. Visiting old friends and family helps increase happiness and fight loneliness. The trouble is that people are forgetting to ask seniors out.
We need to help our elders fight loneliness and social isolation. For this they need to feel valued and useful within the family and in society. They also need to be helped in finding effective ways of using their time in a manner that satisfies them.