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Loneliness in Seniors Is Hazardous to Their Health

By Martine Ehrenclou, M.A.

In reading the San Francisco Chronicle article, “Loneliness Lethal for Seniors, UCSF Study Says,” by Erin Allday, I thought about the number of seniors I know who have become isolated, one of them being a member of my immediate family. His medical conditions now prevent him from leaving the house without being accompanied by a caregiver. His career as a successful attorney has long since past.

I discovered Bill (not his real name) just before my mother’s funeral twelve years ago. My mother was adopted and I never knew she had sought out her biological parents and in the process had found a close relative. Having very little of my own family of origin, I originally sought him out through phone calls and letters. He was reticent at first, probably a little overwhelmed by my enthusiasm over finding a biological relative.

I met him for the first time at my mother’s funeral. Why my mother had kept a blood relative a secret, I’ll never know, and Bill doesn’t have good answers either. When I first met him, albeit at a very sad event, I kept staring at him, searching for my features in his. I had originally hoped that we would become close, but Bill was very private and hard to reach. Never married, he kept to himself, and was involved in his work, colleagues and a couple of close friends.

But over the last few years, Bill has reached back to me and even more so recently since his congestive heart failure and other medical conditions have considerably limited his activity. I think loneliness has drawn him out. As we live across the country from one another, we talk fairly regularly on the phone.

When he first retired because of a medical issue, I researched opportunities for him to connect to other retired attorneys in his community and senior groups that he might join for intellectual stimulation and companionship. He seemed receptive at first when I presented my findings, but Bill never followed through. I wondered if his resistance was because of his private nature or if it was due to his loss of identity with his job.

A significant hospital stay lured me to his hometown to help him out as he was recovering alone in his house. He’d explained that his car battery was dead (he was still driving at the time) and expressed great concern about whether he still had a deadly hospital-acquired infection he’d contracted in the hospital. I found him hobbling on a walker, with very little food in the house and a host of other disquieting things that I suspect happens to seniors who can no longer care for themselves. What disturbed me the most was that he had called his primary care physician’s office three times for the results of tests that would show whether he still had the infection. His doctor had never called him back. I got on the phone and was not able to reach a live person at the doctor’s office. I left two messages. No return phone call. I faxed a note to the doctor explaining the situation and asked for him to call. By Friday of a holiday weekend there was still no response from the doctor and Bill was working up a nest of worry over the test results.

Gut instinct told me to simply drive him down to the doctor’s office and ask for the doctor to give Bill his test results. I didn’t want him to stew over it during the long weekend. We walked into the office, and I politely explained about the phone calls and the fax and that Bill just needed three minutes of the doctor’s time to reveal whether he still harbored the deadly infectious disease. Fifteen minutes later, the physician took us both into an exam room and Bill was told that his test results were clear. The doctor couldn’t have been nicer. I thanked him profusely as I saw the relief on Bill’s face. I found him a caregiver while I was there, which led to other caregivers who now care for him every day.

I often see loneliness in seniors like Bill who are isolated, perhaps because their medical conditions limit much venturing out of the house unless a family member, good friend or caregiver comes to get them. In my new book, The Take-Charge Patient: How You Can Get The Best Medical Care, I encourage seniors to seek one another out to form advocacy partnerships, primarily for medical safety and support. I suggest that neighbors or friends team up and accompany one another to doctor visits. I emphasize the importance of an older patient having an advocate present during a hospital stay. But maybe there’s more to it than just for medical necessity. Seniors need each other to stave off loneliness, as we all do, but seniors seem to become isolated more easily.

I agree with the author of the San Francisco Chronicle article that seniors need to make an effort to remain socially connected. But I wonder if it isn’t also our responsibility to reach out to seniors who may not want to bother their loved ones or neighbors.

Consider an older neighbor whose spouse has died or a relative who lives in your area whose friends might be ill or worse. Growing older isn’t easy for many people and the loneliness that can accompany it can be downright hazardous to their health.

Maybe you have a neighbor or relative who is elderly or chronically ill. Perhaps you could check in on this person from time to time. If you feel inclined, there a few things you can do to help seniors that would make a difference.

Tips to Prevent Isolation and Loneliness in Seniors

  1. If you are going to the market, ask if he or she needs something.
  2. Volunteer to take her to the doctor. Older patients can be intimidated by medical professionals and might be resistant to take up too much of the doctor’s time with questions. Suggest helping her to create a list of questions for the doctor she is to see.
  3. Propose that you are available to talk after his doctor visit to help distill what the doctor said. Suggest that he take notes during the discussion or offer to take notes for him.
  4. Help her create a list of her medications and dosages and what medical conditions she is taking them for. This will empower her. Maybe she needs help with organizing her medications. Medication mistakes are rampant among the elderly.
  5. Leave your phone numbers with him in case of an emergency.

Bill just recently added me to his contact list on his medical alert service. I’ve received a few calls in the middle of the night from them when he’d literally fallen and couldn’t get up. (The paramedics arrived and he was fine.)

At first I was a little annoyed by the calls because living thousands of miles away doesn’t allow me to do anything when I get the call. When I expressed my concern to the operator who called last night, she said, “We simply call relatives so they know what is going on.” And then I got it.

I realized that having me on that call list is much more than just alerting me to a medical crisis. It isn’t about me having to do anything from across the country. It is about Bill’s need to connect if a medical situation occurs and the phone call I make each time to make sure he’s okay. I suspect that means more to him than anything. Perhaps it helps ease the sense of loneliness he must experience when he is by himself and vulnerable.

For more information on The Take-Charge Patient, visit www.thetakechargepatient.com