There were 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK before lockdown. Unfortunately, lockdown will have exacerbated this problem. Given that loneliness can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, this is desperately worrying.
In the earlier weeks of lockdown, everyone has been adjusting. Our priorities for our elderly family relatives have probably mostly centred on ensuring they have enough food and prescriptions are taken care of, if they live independently. If they live in a residential home, then fortunately this will have been taken care of for them, but your concerns have probably focused on the impact of coronavirus in care homes.
However, even with the potential of lockdown being eased over the weeks to come, many elderly relatives fall into the shielded group, or, at best, ‘vulnerable’. Lockdown, for all intents and purposes, will be much longer lasting for these individuals. Our attention now also needs to turn to how we combat loneliness in these groups.
So, how can you help?
Particularly if an elderly relative suffers from dementia, or has cognitive and memory problems, routines are vital to their wellbeing.
Inevitably, there will be changes to their routine. However, try to keep as much from their previous routine as normal and adapt it where it isn’t. For example, if you always visited them at 6 pm on a Wednesday evening, try to ensure that this is one of the times you call them.
Encourage them to get up each day at the same time, and have some plans for hobbies and chores. Help them to think about each mealtime and have plans for what they will have to eat.
For many elderly people, the News is very much part of their routine. However, some caution needs to be exercised here. The current bombardment of worrying information about the pandemic, especially in terms of its impact on the elderly and those in care homes, may exacerbate their fears and their sense of isolation and hopelessness.
Try to point them in the direction of more balanced news, where reports extend far beyond coronavirus alone. Other things are still happening in the world! Also try to get them to limit the amount of time spent reading or watching the news to just once a day maximum.
With visits being impossible, but loneliness a real issue, you may benefit from having a number of you ‘checking in’ with your elderly relative. Think about who may have 15 minutes spare throughout the week, and plan phone calls, ensuring they fit in with when your elderly relative eats and sleeps, but keep it routine. This way, your loved one will always have a friendly chat to look forward to, and it will help them to feel connected to those who love them.
It’s also possible for other friends and family to remain connected in other ways. Some may like to spend the time writing interesting emails and letters, or children in the family could send artwork or write stories to share.
If your loved one is computer-savvy, or has support on hand to help them like in our care homes in the South West, then keeping in touch via video calls could also be an option.
For elderly people, staying active does bring challenges. Add in lockdown and it becomes even more difficult. However, remaining as mobile as possible, and getting some exercise, is vitally important for both mental and physical health.
Encourage your loved one to stroll in their garden, or care home grounds, if possible. Or perhaps they could try some seated chair exercises?
If you are worried about your elderly relative’s wellbeing then ask for help. If they are in a nursing or residential home, then make sure the staff are informed – they are there to help. If a loved one is living independently, then speak to their carers, or call their GP. GPs aren’t making as many visits at the moment, but they can help and they are conducting phone consultations.
Also, don’t forget that many community groups have sprung up at this time. Some are highly aware of the isolation of the elderly and have created telephone buddy services, linking elderly people with volunteers. You can contact your local council for more information. You can also get in touch with Silver Line on 0800 470 80 90.
When chatting to your relative, try to keep the topics away from the pandemic. TV shows, books and funny anecdotes of what children in the family have been up to are some ideas of what to chat about. However, beyond telephone calls, you can also provide them with some distracting activities to keep them occupied.
You could send or drop off jigsaws, puzzle books, DVDs, paints and paper, knitting supplies, seeds for planting, or anything else that you think will appeal to their individual likes. Now may even be the time for them to tackle a new hobby. Adult colouring books, or a particular craft, may be a good idea.
Again, encourage other friends and family to join in. Perhaps teenage grandchildren can write family quizzes, or younger children could design their own word search?
Letting your loved one know that they aren’t alone in feeling anxious or lonely at the moment will go a long way to reassuring them. However, you can go further by sharing some ideas with them about how to reduce anxiety.
Even simple breathing exercises can help, but they may appreciate learning mindfulness or yoga. Alternatively, perhaps they would benefit from journaling.
The days may feel long for many older people at the moment, but remind them that this isn’t forever. Make suggestions of what you can do together when things are safe to meet again. Let them know that you can’t wait to take them on a drive to their favourite café or viewpoint, or simply to come and visit them. Being able to hold on to future opportunities can serve as a great source of encouragement.
Above all, remind your elderly relative that they aren’t alone and they don’t have to deal with loneliness or isolation without support.