You may not think of loneliness as a medical malady, but the lonely seniors you serve are at risk for higher health claims, disease and even death, according to research.
- Researchers in a 2017 AARP and Stanford University studyestimate that 14 percent of older adults enrolled in original Medicare — or 4 million people — have meager social networks. The federal health care program spends an average of $1,608 more a year for each older person who has limited social connections than for those who are more socially active, the study found. That translates into an estimated $6.7 billion in added Medicare spending each year.
- What’s more, a 2018 Cigna study found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Activities could help engage seniors and potentially enhance their daily lives and protect them from the dangers of loneliness. Encouraging family caregivers to incorporate these activities as well may help them play a stronger role in their loved ones’ life.
Activities for Seniors with Cognitive Decline
Cognitive conditions like dementia may affect short- to medium-term memory, but long-term memory often remains intact until the very end. Use this knowledge to engage people with cognitive decline by thinking about the types of activities that shaped their youth. You can suggest these activities:
- Listening to the radio. For many older adults, radio played a key role in their youthful social life. Listening to talk radio or classic tunes can be enjoyable on their own, or they might provide fodder for conversations.
- Looking at old photos. Ask the client to bring out photo albums, if available, and invite them to tell you the stories behind the pictures.
- Writing cards. For many older adults, the mail represented a primary communication method. You can help the client compose and mail greeting cards to relatives, and maybe they will receive some in return.
- Watching an old movie. Enjoying a favorite classic movie together can provide valuable bonding time.
Activities for Seniors without Cognitive Decline
Those seniors without cognitive decline may have additional options for engaging in daily activities. Stimulating the brain with fun activities can help keep the mind alert. Try these suggestions:
- Prepare a meal together. If you care for someone who put a hot meal on the table for the family every night, cooking together can bring back happy memories.
- Go for a walk. For clients who are able to walk without assistance, getting a dose of fresh air and sunshine may be just the ticket. You can stroll together, look at trees and flowers and discuss the client’s favorite plants or memories.
- Solve a puzzle. Depending on client preferences, attack a jigsaw puzzle or try solving some Sudokus together. Problem-solving activities like these can help sharpen cognition.
- Take on crafting. Easy craft projects not only allow you to engage with the client, but he or she can feel a sense of productivity by creating small gifts for loved ones. Tailor the craft to the client’s artistic preferences and skill level. The internet holds millions of possibilities for finding easy craft projects of all kinds.
- Consider container gardening. If the client enjoys gardening, the two of you can plant flowers or vegetables in small containers. Having plants in the house or on the patio not only provides visual interest but gives the client an opportunity to nurture a living thing.
How to Encourage Family to be Involved
Encouraging family members to visit is not only an important way to help alleviate loneliness, but may become meaningful to family members, too. Help relatives understand that visiting a loved one will provide a way for them to ensure the person’s care is adequate, show the family member they are loved and experience their own peace-of-mind in knowing they are forging a meaningful relationship with their family member during the final years of that person’s life.
When appropriate, give family members the tools to succeed. Share stories of activities you’ve found successful with the client and suggest they try them, too. Offer to help them create visits that enrich both the client and the family. If appropriate, suggest they bring a pet with them to provide a focal point for the visit.
Working together, senior care professionals and families can partner to bring more meaning to the lives of older adults and help avoid the risks of loneliness.