A few years ago, I was the caregiver to my very ill Momma. She was diagnosed with myeloma 3 years prior and took a turn for the worst in her 3rd year of diagnosis. It was a very sad time in my life but while the sadness loomed I found myself cherishing her every word, I asked her questions that I wouldn’t have before, we held hands, cried and laughed together trying to keep our spirits up.
One morning when I went to check on her to see what she wanted for breakfast, I found her on the floor laughing at herself. I asked her, “Momma, why are you on the floor?” Her reply, “Well that’s a really good question and I can’t answer it. I have no idea how I got here.” I believed she was laughing out of fear … fearing that blank space in her brain that would not allow her to remember why she was on the floor. We went through the day as usual, nurses coming in and out of the house, doctor’s appointments to make and of course, tending to her immediate needs hour by hour.
The next morning, I, once again, went to check on her and asked her what she would like for breakfast. When I entered her room, she looked at me as though she didn’t know who I was. Her eyes were blank. I asked her who I was and she really had to think hard to give me an answer. It was then that I realized that that blank space in her brain of yesterday had grown to an empty abyss. She was losing touch with reality. She didn’t recognize my sister, my father or myself. Needless to say, we rushed her to the hospital knowing something was terribly wrong.
Later that day, her doctors told me that she had a blood clot that burst which caused her dementia. I can vividly remember the fearful look in her eyes, not knowing the loved ones around her, her doctors and most of all not being able to process thought. I remember her screaming, “I want my brain back! Please, give me my brain back!” This was the day my stoic, strong Momma became a child depending on me to feed her, change her, bathe her and help her remember.
I know I’m not the only person who has witnessed the effect of dementia in our loved ones … but there are things we can do for our aging parents, as well as, ourselves that can keep our brains strong and clear. While I was doing research for this article I came across something that I never would have thought to be a factor in dementia and that is …
Loneliness and the lack of socialization can play a large part in the longevity and cognitive decline of our aging selves
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It’s okay to enjoy your alone time, and revel in having the time to read a good book or listen to music without interference. But, when you become lonely or feel isolated from the rest of the world or community, it may become a risk factor for your health and well-being.
Studies show that seniors who feel isolated and lonely have a greater risk of early death. Social contact is important as you age and is a powerful predictor of your future longevity.
In a Heath and Retirement Study conducted by the University of California San Francisco found:
“In our typical medical model, we don’t think of subjective feelings as affecting health,” said first author Carla Perissinotto, MD, MHS, assistant professor in the UCSF Division of Geriatrics. “It’s intriguing to find that loneliness is independently associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline.”
As you age, you’re bound to lose some of the people who were close to you. Friends, family members and your spouse may pass away or move and your feelings of loneliness may increase to a level that leaves you isolated and depressed.
There are other ways, besides mentally, that the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation can affect your life. One is that isolation can make you more vulnerable to what is known as elder abuse. If no one is watching over your welfare as you age, it’s easier for predators to take advantage. Long-term health care may become necessary for lonely and isolated seniors. This decision will provide the senior with much-needed contact with others. There are many services which strive to care for and support seniors, both physically and mentally.
Isolation of seniors also makes them more susceptible to cognitive decline and can lead to dementia or even Alzheimer’s disease. We are social creatures and need others in our lives. When that need isn’t being met, the results can be both physical and mental decline. Long-term illnesses may also occur when seniors perceive loneliness and isolation. Studies prove that such conditions as mobility issues, depression, arthritis and long term diseases such as COPD often occur when seniors are isolated.
In a 2012 study by Cornell University, high blood pressure can also become a factor in loneliness and isolation issues with seniors. Over a four year period, studies show an increase in the systolic blood pressure in seniors who are isolated and lonely. It further goes on to state:
“Viewed from this perspective, acute loneliness may be seen as adaptive, signaling us to repair social connections. However, it is the persistence of loneliness over time that may set the stage for health problems in later life,” Ong said. “I think one of the most important and life-affirming messages of this research is the reminder that we all desire and need meaningful social connections.”
Look for signs of depression in seniors and keep tabs on whether he or she is becoming more isolated because of mobility issues or inevitable loss of family members, friends or a spouse.
Living alone doesn’t necessarily lead to feelings of isolation, but it can be a factor if the senior doesn’t often engage in social activities. The statistics that prove the detrimental effects of isolation and poor socialization are alarming but early intervention can help lessen the effects and bring a positive outlook to most seniors.
If you are caring for aging parents, please keep this in mind. It can make a world of difference in your life and the lives of our aging parents.
Have you had to care for an aging parent? Were you aware of the role that loneliness and social isolation can play on their health? Your health?
See you in the comments,