7 “mistakes” you’re making as a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s and what to do about it.

Helping hands, care for the elderly concept

If you’re like most caregivers you are tired, stressed, and some days just can’t wait to crawl into bed. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting enough rest? Do you have the support you need? Are you listening carefully to the person you lovingly care for? Here’s a quick check-list for assessing how well you are caring for yourself and your loved one.

  1. Are you eating a poor breakfast or skipping breakfast? It is so important to begin the day with a nourishing meal. This is true for everyone, but especially important for caregivers. It’s recommended that we eat within one hour after waking to stabilize our blood sugar—which has dropped during sleep—so that your mood stays even and you can perform at your best.  If not, you’ll be more apt to reach for a bagel or doughnut or another cup of coffee. After loading up on carbs and empty calories, it’s typical to feel hungry again within a couple of hours. And every time our blood sugar crashes, it’s a signal to the body to store calories. The same goes for a hungry body. If you don’t eat breakfast, your blood sugar will be low, and this too is a signal to the body to store calories, which adds fat around your middle. And, of course, the same applies to the person you care for.

Breakfasts of Champions

Instead of eating a bowl of corn flakes with a banana and low-fat milk, have a 2-egg omelet, slice of whole grain toast, a cup of fresh fruit and a cup of steamed greens such as kale. Then notice the difference in how you feel. You’ll have more stamina, less anxiety and depression, and will able to get through the whole day more easily.

Other ideas

  • Whole-grain mini-quiche with 1/2 cup berries
  • Oatmeal with prunes or raisins, walnuts or almonds, and cinnamon, whole milk
  • Multigrain hot cereal, Greek yoghurt and fresh fruit, almonds
  • Eggs with beans, salsa, and a side of greens
  • Bagel with hummus, tomato and goat cheese
  • Smoothie with greens, fruit, protein and flax

2. Do you say “Remember when . . . .or, I told you already . . .”

People with dementia typically do not remember what they said a few minutes ago. If your loved one repeats the same question over and over again, try not to get annoyed. Instead of reminding the person that they forgot what you told them a second ago rephrase it, breaking it down into a simple sentence . . . or completely change the subject.

If you reminisce about something instead of saying, “Remember when we were kids and we’d ride around the neighborhood on our bikes, etc.” tell the story: “You had a red bike and I had a blue bike and we loved to ride through the woods on the bike path, etc.”

If he or she asks about a spouse or parent who has passed away, change the subject to something like this: “Mom and Dad met in New York City at a dance, etc.” If the person keeps asking when he or she can go “home” ask the person to tell you about “home.” You might have to distract your loved one by taking a walk, listening to music, looking at pictures in a book or magazine. Saying “You are already home,” probably will not work.

3. Unusual irritability or anger can be the sign of a UTI or other physical ailment that requires attention. Acting out or acting differently than what is the person’s usual behavior can be a cry for help, especially if the person is non-verbal. Make an appointment to see a doctor to rule out anything suspicious.

4. How well are you sleeping? There are plenty of studies linking poor sleep to a host of physical and psychological ailments: poor immunity, elevated levels of cortisol and insulin, weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. And irritability, foggy thinking and anxiety, depression and low energy can directly impact your ability to care for another person, do household chores and get in the way of your interpersonal relationships. Good sleep hygiene is the first step to improving your sleep. Click here to read a list of things to try when you are stressed, your mind is on overload, or when you’ve just had too much stimulation and can’t fall asleep or stay asleep.

5. Are you and/or your loved one lonely? Caregiving can isolate us from our friends and family.  You may feel that your social network has disappeared or that your friends have “jumped ship.” This may also be true for the person you care for. Set up times for family and friends to visit or take your loved one on an outing. And don’t be afraid to ask your own friends for support. Find respite care and set up a lunch date with a friend. It’s vital to have social interaction for your mental, physical and emotional health.

6. Is there adequate lighting in the home where your loved one lives? People with dementia can become fearful because they don’t see things spatially the same way we do. Their sense of space is distorted and their vision gets skewed, not because there is something physically wrong with their eyes. But rather, the brain interprets what the eyes see, and when the brain doesn’t work right our perception gets distorted. Two things you can do to help are to put extra lights in dark areas of the living quarters and remove throw rugs in order to reduce falls.

7. Are you and your loved adequately hydrated? Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water each day to keep your body hydrated and to flush out toxins. The brain is 70% water when fully hydrated. When it is dehydrated, neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking. The same goes for your loved one. Memory is much improved when the brain is hydrated. Seniors often lose the signal that they are thirsty and dehydration can be a serious problem for the frail and elderly. If your loved one lives in a memory care home or nursing home, make sure water is provided throughout the day–not just that it is available but that it is offered.


Caregiving is probably the hardest thing you will ever do. You are doing the best that you can, but please remember to take care of yourself.

For more information on how you can reduce stress and boost your happiness and health, read Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

 

Is it forgetfulness, dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Senior Woman Comforting Depressed Husband Sitting On Bench

At one time or another, most of us have forgotten where we put our keys, our phone, glasses, or even parked our car. Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went in? Sure. Run into an acquaintance and forgotten the person’s name? Yes, and it’s embarrassing.

It doesn’t mean you have dementia or Alzheimer’s. I call memory blips “brain farts.” They become more common as we age because our brains form fewer connections so the memory is not as strong as it once was. Also, the speed at which our brain processes stored facts, figures and names becomes slower. Recall becomes slower. (One trick I have for bringing up a person’s forgotten name is to go through the alphabet. It almost always works.)

Forgetfulness can be a normal part of the aging process, or it could be triggered by these physical conditions:

  • insomnia, or lack of sleep (for help in this area read 16 ways to sleep better)
  • thyroid condition
  • drug interactions
  • too much caffeine and/or alcohol
  • stress (Read 16 Stress busters)
  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • UTIs –urinary tract infections
  • dehydration (please remember to drink at least 6 glasses of water every day)
  • depression and/or mood disorders

The best way to rule out memory problems is to have a full physical exam including a blood panel. Please make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your concerns. Sometimes a memory issue can be cleared up by just getting more sleep or by taking a vitamin B complex supplement.

But if you find yourself putting your keys or your phone in strange places like the refrigerator, getting lost in the city you’ve lived in for decades, or forgetting how to scramble your eggs, this could be indicative of a more serious problem.

Dementia or Alzheimer’s? 

Dementia is the name for an umbrella of  brain disorders with the primary symptoms being memory loss, inability to think clearly or to express oneself, difficulty making decisions and solving problems, and trouble controlling emotions. The term dementia usually refers to degenerative conditions of the brain that result from trauma, as in the brain injuries found in athletes, but more commonly it is used to refer to conditions related to a disease.

Dementia is a major symptom of these diseases:

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurocognitive disorder and affects almost 6 million Americans. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to nearly triple over the next generation. In the early stage of the disease, people with the disease will find it difficult to remember recent events such as what they had for dinner the night before, or even just a few hours ago. They will most likely be depressed because they can’t manage things as well as they used to. An active person might lose interest in things that used to excite them. And the person might forget names of people near and dear. As the disease progresses, emotional behavior will change, the ability to communicate will be impaired and confusion will take over. Everyday tasks such as bathing will become a challenge. Later, physical changes will occur such as the inability to walk or talk and eventually swallow, which often leads to death.

Frontotemporal dementia often emerges around the age of 60 years, but it can appear in people who are in their 20s. It involves a loss of nerve cells and affects behavior, language and movement.

Dementia with Lewy bodies can resemble those of Alzheimer’s disease, but there may also be sleep disturbances, visual hallucinations, and an unsteady walking pattern. Lewy bodies are collections of protein that develop inside nerve cells and prevent them from functioning properly.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease represents a number of brain diseases that cause problems throughout the body. They are thought to be triggered by prion proteins. A prion is neither a virus nor a bacterium, but it can cause a disease. Types of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease.” Symptoms include rapid memory, behavior, and movement changes. It is a rare and fatal condition.

CTE–Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes in contact sports such as football. s

Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that results from a defect on chromosome 4. It can lead to mood changes, abnormal movements, and depression. The person may experience an ongoing decline in thinking and reasoning skills. There could be slurred speech and problems with coordination. It tends to appear between the ages of 30 and 50 years.

Parkinson’s disease is a motor system disorder. The hallmark signs include trembling, especially tremor in the hands. It can also involve depression and behavioral changes. In the later stages, the individual may have difficulty speaking and sleep disturbances.

Vascular dementia, also known as post-stroke dementia, can appear after a stroke, when there is bleeding or vessel blockage in the brain. It affects a person’s thinking and physical movements. Early symptoms may include an inability to organize, plan, or make decisions.

Preventing dementia

Although there is no cure yet, there are measures you can take NOW to stave off brain and mental decline. Click here to read 8 Ways to Train Your Brain.

Additionally, here is my list of 10 recommendations for maintaining cognitive function and boosting brain power

  1. Drink at least 8-10 glasses of water to keep your body hydrated and to flush out toxins. The brain is 70% water when fully hydrated. When it is dehydrated, neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking.
  2. Ginkgo biloba has been proven in hundreds of studies to help blood circulation to the brain, sharpening mental performance, increasing concentration and short-term memory. A well-known study in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that supplementation with 40 mg of ginkgo three times a day for one year had a positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. A placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trail of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia.
  3. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  4. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  5. Eat more blueberries! Their active antioxidants have been shown to protect and restore brain function. One recent study revealed that feeding blueberry extracts to mature mice partially reversed some signs of brain aging.
  6. Avoid alcohol. People who drink too much alcohol often show shrinkage or atrophy of the cerebral cortex, the seat of memory, learning, reasoning, intelligence, and emotions. Reduced cortical thickness in abstinent alcoholics and association with alcoholic behavior
  7. Avoid smoking. Smoking constricts blood vessels, making less blood, oxygen, and nutrients available to the brain. It also replaces oxygen with carbon monoxide, a chemical that damages brain cells.
  8. Incorporate a regular exercise program into your daily routine. An easy way to start is by walking 30 minutes a day at least five times a week. Yoga is wonderful for staving off arthritis pain, maintaining flexibility and for relaxation.
  9. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship, hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.
  10. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. Studies have indicated that sleep deprivation can increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

For more information on how you can reduce stress and boost your happiness and health, read Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

BarbraCohn__

 

What special item will you keep when your loved one dies?

Green shirt with long sleeves

Of course, I kept the recipe boxes that contain the directions for the foods my mother loved and made for us: noodle kugel, apple pie, Mandelbrot, eggplant Parmesan, and sour cream coffee cake. When I look at her handwritten recipe cards I can almost feel her gentle touch. What is it about someone’s handwriting that seems to reach out and explain exactly how they feel at the moment they wrote the line? If the curve of a letter such as B or C swings too far to the right the person is said to be very generous. If the letters are straight and stiff and lean toward the left, the person is supposedly self-centered. My mother’s handwriting speaks to me of kindness and femininity and I find myself luxuriating in her handwritten notes until my eyes well up with longing for her or even for just a taste of her eggplant or the banging of her pots in the kitchen.

When I was clearing out my mother’s apartment this past August, a mint green, cotton button-down shirt with three-quarter length sleeves begged me to take it home. It looks like my mother in her younger years when she was passionately interested in health matters. Mom was one of the first New Age people to juice carrots, eat granola and take nutritional supplements, and she was overly interested in her friends’ and family member’s health issues. It made perfect sense. She loved the color green, the color associated with health. And green perfectly highlighted her green cat eyes, dark brown hair, and fair complexion.

The cotton green shirt is crumpled now. It rests in the ironing basket where it will stay until I’m able to caress it, iron the wrinkles out, and hang it in a place where I can look at it without weeping for my mother. The green shirt will hide in the bottom of the basket under clothes eager to be worn, until I am ready to wrap myself in it and feel comfort, not the grief that accompanies the inexplicable feeling that a daughter feels when she has lost her first friend, her best cheerleader, and her devoted goddess who implored the moon and stars to enchant her girl’s life. When I finally iron the green shirt, it will hang limply reminding me of the voice that I can hear as clearly as if my mother were standing next to me, reminding me of who I am and where I came from.


“Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on AmazonBarbraCohn__

10 Things to Remember if You Love a Person with Dementia

Assisting and helping elderly peopleToday is World Alzheimer’s Awareness Day. It’s a good day to repost this important article and to remind people about the book I wrote after caring for my husband who passsed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago. The book has helped so many people, which is what my intention was in writing it. “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on Amazon.

It’s sometimes hard to love a family member who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. People with dementia can be quarrelsome, uncooperative, negative, whiney, belligerent or combative. They might get their nights and days mixed up, pace the floor for hours, wring their hands non-stop, or cry like a baby. They might ask you the same question twenty times in a row, refuse to budge when you need to get them to an appointment, or refuse to eat what you’ve made for dinner.

When the going gets tough, it helps to remember that you love the person who resides inside that body that is tight and tense and inflamed from amyloid plaque that has strangled the neurons and disrupted the neurotransmitters that allow thoughts to flow and emotions to stay even. He or she is the same person you married, the same loving parent who nurtured and guided you, the same sibling you shared holidays and outings with, or the same friend who offered a should to cry on or who helping you move to a new home.

When you’re about to lose it, walk out, or hide in the closet, stop for a moment and remember at least one of these 10 things about the person you lovingly take care of.

People with dementia and Alzheimer’s often feel:

  1. Embarrassed when you say, “ I just told you . . ..” Instead of reminding them that they forgot what you told them a second ago rephrase it, breaking it down into a simple sentence . . . or completely change the subject.
  2. Fearful because they don’t see things spatially the same way we do. Their sense of space is distorted and their vision gets skewed, not because there is something physically wrong with their eyes. But rather, the brain interprets what the eyes see, and when the brain doesn’t work right our perception gets distorted. Two things you can do to help are to put extra lights in dark areas of the living quarters and remove throw rugs in order to reduce falls.
  3. Lonely because they can’t communicate well, or some of their friends have “jumped ship.” Set up times for family or friends to visit or take your loved one on an outing.
  4. Confused because they don’t understand why they can’t drive anymore, or why they can’t go for a walk alone, or why they can’t remember where they live or what their son’s or daughter’s name is.
  5. Angry because the keys to the car have been taken away, or because they get frustrated when they can’t express their feelings or thoughts.
  6. Sad because they can’t read a book or newspaper, or can’t manage to engage in their favorite hobby or sport.
  7. Anxious because they can’t move as fast or get dressed by themselves or put on their shoes easily. Or, because they hear sounds that are disturbing or are bothered by someone else’s behavior.
  8. Nervous because they have lost their sense of balance and feel unsteady on their feet. Or because they don’t like the feel of water on their skin and don’t want to bathe and don’t want to be forced.
  9. Frustrated because they can’t write a check, figure out how much tip to leave, or remember how to use the TV remote control.
  10. Paranoid because they think someone is stealing their money or prized possessions.

When all else fails, take a deep breath and put on some music. It almost always uplifts the spirit—for both the caregiver and the person being cared for.

Please subscribe to my blog for more informative articles like this. Thank you!

Lonely? Two easy ways to make meaningful connections that might just help you live longer.

Bringing Back MemoriesBarbraCohn__

“Calmer Waters” contains more great information on how to stay connected, improve your immunity, and reduce stress. Available wherever fine books are sold and on Amazon.

I’m no stranger to loneliness. When I moved cross-country as a college student to a place  that was as foreign to me as if I had time-traveled to a different century, I didn’t know a soul. It didn’t help that I had transferred my second semester sophomore year after everyone had established their group of friends. I’ll never forget the feeling of being alone in the world, not having a friend to confide in or hang out with. Having moved from my hometown where I grew up surrounded by many relatives and a strong support network, I felt like an alien who didn’t know which foods would sustain or poison me. That experience has allowed me to understand what loneliness is and how it can trigger a downward spiral to depression. Now we are hearing from the medical community how devastating this “aloneness” can be.

Studies are showing that loneliness might be a bigger health risk than smoking or obesity. In fact, loneliness and social isolation is considered not just a psychological issue but a medical one that can actually kill you. According to a far-reaching study (meta-analysis of scientific literature on the subject January 1980 to February 2014) conducted by Brigham Young University, social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes and drinking six ounces of alcohol a day, and increases one’s likelihood of death by 32%.

Isolation and feeling alone has also been shown to contribute to depression, cognitive decline, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and poor recovery from illness and surgery.

Two programs that help seniors and caregivers connect on a personal level

Senior Center Without Walls

Senior Center Without Walls is a telephone-based national program that offers free weekly activities, education, friendly conversation, classes, support groups, and presentations  to individuals 60 years or older anywhere in the United States. There are activities occurring throughout the day, every day.

Play a game, write a poem, go on a virtual tour, meditate, share a gratitude, get support, and most importantly, connect and engage with others every day. SCWW is a community consisting of participants, staff, facilitators, presenters, and other volunteers who care about each other and who value being connected. All groups are accessible by phone and many are acessible online.

Katie Wade, program manager, says SCWW offers 75 options. People can join a particular group, call in the same time each week, hear the same voices on a regular basis and make friends. This has a positive impact on their emotional and physical life. “The gratitude activity, which is offered twice a day, is especially popular and well attended,” says Wade. “Participants share something they are grateful for. This allows for an increase in social connectedness. We also have fun and intellectual programs that help individuals feel valued, stimulated and engaged, and sometimes we invite presenters from the outside in.”

Wade points out that Senior Center Without Walls is not just for people with mobility concerns. We get folks who are active, people who are married and individuals in a co-housing situation. Anyone can feel lonely, she says. “We take a survey every year and the results indicate that 85% of our participants feel more intellectually stimulated and  socially connected. And on a daily basis, we get calls of gratitude from participants who say, ‘this program saved my live,'” says Wade.

Senior Center Without Walls is an award-winning program of Episcopal Senior Communities. For more information: SCWW@jtm-esc.org 1-877-797-7299 (also known as 1-877-797-SCWW)

Circle Talk

CircleTalk is a structured conversation program guided by leaders trained to inspire sharing among the participants. It follows a customized curriculum that engages older adults in meaningful conversations through creative activities. Director Deborah Skovron explains that the program is modeled on Rachael Kessler’s Passage Works Institute which works with school districts throughout the United States to teach teacher how to create safe, positive environments in which students are free to experience deep connection to themselves, others, and the world around them.

“Rachael asked me to take the principles of her model and create a program for seniors,” explains Skovron. Now, after eight years of development and refinement, Circle Talk has six programs running at any given time in senior living communities in Boulder, Colorado. A trained leader guides the one-hour circle following the same six steps, says Skovran.

  1. 10-12 people sit in a circle and get name tags.
  2. The group settles down by being led in a brief meditation.
  3. The leader does a warm-up activity asking simple questions such as, “What was your favorite game as a kid?”
  4. Next, the leader connects to the previous week by saying, “Last week we talked about . . .”
  5. The main focus of the week is introduced. A topic might be something like “What’s an important moment in history that helped inform who you are today? i.e. the first man on the moon, the Depression. How did it impact your life?” This leads to questions and conversation.
  6. The leader ends with a ritual such as asking each person to pass a message to the person sitting next to him/her, passing a squeeze, giving a “word” for the week, etc.

“My favorite thing is finding out no matter what age people are, they still require connections to other people and to themselves to remember who they have been. Circle Talk really allows for that opportunity,” says Skovron.

Skovron’s goal is to make Circle Talk available nation-wide. For information about volunteering, becoming a certified leader, donating, or participating in Circle Talk, visit CircleTalk. Circle Talk programs are thoughtfully designed conversation groups. They make it possible to form new relationships, providing a chance for reflection and self expression that many thought were lost to them forever.

Loneliness vs. Aloneness: Why one is dangerous to your health

Mother and daughter

Loneliness puts one at risk for a number of serious health issues.

When I transferred to a university 2,000 miles from home my second semester sophomore year, I experienced loneliness for the first time. It emerged as a physical sensation in my chest and developed into a mild depression. Four decades later, I have a large network of friends and family, including four grandchildren. I am never lonely, but I’m often alone, and I relish that quiet time.

What is the difference between being lonely and alone, and why is one dangerous to your health?

Loneliness is a complex, uncomfortable emotional response to lack of companionship and or isolation. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Studies have shown that Americans feel increasingly alone. Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two.  Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed.

You might have hundreds of friends on Facebook and still be lonely. Because, according to John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 2008), social networking sites provide people with a false sense of connection that often increases loneliness in people who feel alone. Cacioppo says that social media sites should serve as a supplement to personal interaction, rather than as a replacement. He compares connecting on a Web site to eating celery: “It feels good immediately, but it doesn’t give you the same sustenance,” he says. For people who feel satisfied and loved in their day-to-day life, social media can be a reassuring extension. For those who are already lonely, Facebook status updates are just a reminder of how much better everyone else is at making friends and having fun.

How do we feel lonely?

You can be lonely in a marriage in which you have nothing in common with your spouse who is a work addict or involved in activities that don’t include you. You can feel terribly lonely, as I did, after moving to a new city where you don’t know a soul. Or you can feel lonely (and depressed) if you are adjusting to living alone in the home you shared with a deceased or divorced life partner. New parents often experience loneliness during the early months of a newborn’s life if they are on maternity leave and not interacting with their work colleagues.

Loneliness usually includes feeling anxious or depressed, and can manifest as physical, emotional, mental, and social symptoms. But feelings of depression can also lead to loneliness because often a person who is depressed doesn’t have the energy or will to make the effort to socialize.

The health risks

Older adults who describe themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death. Chronic isolation and loneliness have been linked to depression, physical decline, and even shorter lifespans. It’s a problem that can affect anyone: infants, teens or adults, and evidence suggests Americans are more socially isolated now than ever before.

Researchers have found that prolonged isolation is just as dangerous as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or alcoholism. Isolation and loneliness can:

  • compromise the immune system
  • contribute to depression and anxiety
  • affect sleep
  • increase stress hormones
  • contribute to premature aging
  • increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack
  • contribute to cognitive decline and risk of dementia
  • lead to the admission to nursing homes or the use of emergency services
  • result in death

The problem of social isolation

An estimated one in five adults over age 50—at least 8 million—are affected by isolation. Although the terms isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing. Loneliness refers to how people perceive their experience and whether they feel isolated. A person can be surrounded by many people but still feel alone. Isolation, though, can be measured by such things as the size of a person’s social network, availability of transportation, and the ability to access resources and information.

Eradicating isolation has been identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare as one of its top challenges today.

Factors that put you at risk for isolation “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50,” AARP Foundation (May 2012)

  • Living alone*
  • Mobility or sensory impairment*
  • Major life transitions or losses*
  • Low income or limited financial resources
  • Being a caregiver for someone with a serious condition
  • Psychological or cognitive challenges
  • Inadequate social support
  • Rural, unsafe and/or inaccessible neighborhood
  • Transportation access challenges
  • Language barriers
  • Age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and/or gender identity barriers

* Primary factors

 

Why being alone can be a good thing

I am a professional writer and require a lot of alone time. In fact, I prefer to be in my home office without anyone in the house for hours or days at a time so that I can work without interference. I am also a meditator and love to dive deep into the silence. I love to read, I love to play the piano. I enjoy my own companionship. All these things are solitary activities that strengthen my spirit and feed my soul.

Yet, I need to engage socially after a few days of being snowed in, or after a few days of spending hours at my computer. Over my lifetime, I’ve built up a reserve of people to play with, have lunch with, discuss with, and activities to engage in, and I doubt if I’ll ever feel lonely again as I did when I was 19 and moved to a strange city far from my family and friends.

Ways to feel connected

If you are feeling a lonely or isolated, get ahead of the lonely curve now to expand your social network. Don’t put it off. Getting socially connected might take some effort, but it is definitely worth it for so many reasons. You will gain friendship, companionship, better health, and in the process you will be giving of yourself, which is the best gift of all.

Here are some ideas to help you get going:

  • Volunteer at a school, library, hospital, food bank, etc.
  • Attend religious services/spiritual gatherings
  • Join or start a book club.
  • Plan a neighborhood potluck.
  • Stay physically active and join a hiking/walking club.
  • Take a class to learn something new.
  • Join a “New Mom’s Group,” or go to the senior center for a lecture or interesting program.
  • Teach others how to knit, sew, bake, garden, paint, etc.
  • Get involved in a community project or cause.
  • Host a movie night for your neighbors.
  • Learn how to use social media to stay connected with friends and family.
  • Before you give up your keys, learn about transportation options in your town.
  • Consider living in a co-housing community.

I’d love to hear from you. Please send your story of how you stay connected.

“Life is short, make it sweet.”

 

The loneliness of caregiving: How to stay socially connected

Closeup of old woman hands holding mobile phone

Woman with mobile phone

My husband had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The hardest thing for me during the duration of his illness was that I lost my companion. He was the person I made important decisions with. The person I went to movies with, ate dinner with, had interesting conversations with, traveled with, and shared delight with over the accomplishments of our children. He was the one I could complain to if I had a headache, stomach ache, or sore throat, without worrying about being called a hypochondriac or a baby. He was also the person who always cheered me on when I succeeded in achieving my goals.

When it came time to make the decision to move him to a memory care home, I especially missed having him help me decide on which room he’d live in, what type of furniture to buy, and the mattress he would sleep on. When it came time to bury him, it was agonizing for me to choose the plot of land where he would be laid to rest, and where I will be eventually interred.

During my many years of caregiving, I would often hide behind a mask of cheerfulness. It helped. I didn’t feel like a prisoner because I hired people to take my husband out to see a movie. Several of his friends kindly took him to lunch on a regular basis. It takes an effort to maintain friends and to stay socially involved, especially if you no longer work outside the home.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t let my husband’s disease ruin my life. I kept an active calendar filled with dance classes, lunches with friends, and even pursued a certificate in nutrition–all the while he was ill.

But it took planning and some might think I was a bit selfish. But when you look at the grand picture of caregiving, taking care of your personal needs is anything but being selfish. Studies show that 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers experience symptoms of clinical depression. One of the reasons, besides the daily stress, is isolation and loneliness.

Now for the lecture part: If you are a caregiver it is vital that you maintain a social network. Here are some ideas:

  • Stay connected with friends and family either through Facebook or another social media outlet, or by telephone or email, etc.
  • Make a lunch date with a friend at least once a week.
  • Many places of worship offer support for caregivers and families, including social events.
  • Go to a class—any kind of class: knitting, dance, weight training.
  • Join a support group—The Alzheimer’s Association offers classes and workshops for caregivers and for the person with memory loss.
  • Ask your friends and family for respite care. Have someone come over for a couple of hours a week so you can at least get out for a walk or go grocery shopping.
  • Go to the movies with a friend. It’s a great way to escape into another world for a few hours.
  • Call a best friend who is happy to talk; call someone who makes you laugh–laughter is truly the best medicine.
  • Bring your loved one to a Memory Cafe/Alzheimer’s Cafe. The challenges of living with memory loss can sever social connection at a time when it is needed most. Throughout the US and Europe, this casual social meeting is for caregivers and their care partner (the person they are caring for). Memory Cafes offer a way to socialize, explore art, music, poetry and listen to discussions and presentations. A Dutch psychologist opened the firs Memory Cafe in Holland. today there are about 200 Memory Cafes in the U.S.
  • Chat online with other caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association offers chat rooms and so does the American Cancer Society. Check Elder Care Online for chat room and caregiver forum links. ElderCare Online’s Caregiver Support Network brings together online resources, groups and experts to create a virtual community dedicated to improving quality of life for you and your loved ones.