Help Aging Parents–Loneliness: The Implications are Sobering

At its most basic, it is the lack of fulfilling social connection in people who yearn to feel connected.
The web of meaningful connections that keeps us healthy has “frayed to the breaking point.”
Lonely Planet

The holiday season is here. Several of this blog’s posts in years past have focused on holiday loneliness, offering ideas to mitigate some of it. That said, holiday loneliness is one thing. Perpetual loneliness is another, leading to sobering health consequences. We often think of the emotional. Do we understand the physical? And the implications for lonely, aging parents?

UCLA Health’s recent Lonely Planet  article  (click this link or “loneliness” in Newsworthy at top right) reiterates what many of us know: “Loneliness and social isolation take a steep toll on the human body.”  But are we aware that “Studies show people who are chronically lonely have significantly more heart disease, are more vulnerable to metastatic cancer, have an increased risk of stroke and are more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s? Lonely adults are 25 percent more likely to die prematurely, while elderly people who are lonely die at twice the rate as those who are socially connected. All of which makes the spike in loneliness in American society even more alarming,” according to the article.

Steve Cole, PhD (FEL ’98), UCLA professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and John Cacioppo, PhD, founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and UCLA Dr. have done extensive research which Lonely Planet explains. Dr. Cacioppo says “The mortality rate for air pollution is 5 percent,“For loneliness, it’s 25 percent.”  We also learn 1/5 of the population suffers from loneliness.

While we know that older people’s social interactions decrease with age and friends die and/or move, and often family members don’t live near, options for meaningful social interactions have further decreased. Why? Think social media. The options for socialization may be broader, but they’re not deeper, thus encouraging loneliness, which Dr. Cole calls “a pending epidemic.”

Which bring us back to the holidays. Most adult children are capable of supplying the patches–temporarily filling the holiday loneliness void for aging parents. Meanwhile one researcher’s summation is “work that is physically demanding, cognitively stimulating and socially rewarding rids loneliness in older adults.”  With this in mind, impressive results for overcoming loneliness–much more lasting than a patch–are now being achieved by an intergenerational project resulting  from UCLA-Johns Hopkins research: Generation Xchange,  Lonely Planet supplies the details.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it may also take a village to provide meaningful work to dispel loneliness and keep grandparents healthy in the village.

Related:  Understanding Aging Parents: Elders’ Tips to Combat Holiday Loneliness
                Help Aging Parents: Connections, Socialization–Are You an Aging-Parent-Includer?



Aging Parents: Dilemma– Including Frail Elders for Holiday-Family Dinners

If we are fortunate enough to have aging parents and old family members, at some point we’ll probably face this dilemma: Can/should frail elders be included in family celebrations like Thanksgiving/Christmas/ Chanukah?  Our guidelines over the years have been:

1. Do they want to come?
2. Are they at physical risk if they come?
3. Is our home elderly-user-friendly?
4. Is it better for them or better for us?

This is how it has worked and still works for us:

1.  They want to come: Until they were in their 80s, my parents and Sr. Advisor R (my mil) wanted to come for Thanksgiving. They made the trip East from Oregon, California and Arizona. They stayed with us. Those were special times.

When travel became more difficult for them, we moved Thanksgiving dinner to Arizona. My parents could come over. Our tradition continued.

For many years, back east and out west, the night before Thanksgiving, found Mother, R and me, in our bathrobes in the kitchen, doing all preliminary preparations and enjoying the special togetherness that comes from working together. I smile as I think back. R phoned Wednesday night while I was doing the preparations by myself, recalling her happy memories of that night-before routine. Although Mother died in 2000, R and I continued the tradition until R broke her hip 4 years ago.

2.  Physical risk was a problem, first when Dad was undergoing daily cyclotron treatments for prostate cancer and later because R had broken her hip.

Dad’s treatment schedule was interrupted a bit (it wouldn’t have taken place on Thanksgiving day in any event); and doctors said “no problem” taking a  few extra days off to drive over to Arizona for Thanksgiving. He and Mother spent a happy and uneventful (health-wise) Thanksgiving weekend in Arizona.

Four Thanksgivings ago R, at 97, was a patient in a rehab center, receiving therapy after broken hip surgery the end of September. She wanted to come for Thanksgiving dinner, but was unsure whether that was doable. Making her wishes known to the rehab staff and discussion with her doctor, generated lessons on how to get in and out of our car without putting any weight on her left leg.

She learned how to do what she needed to do, worked hard in rehab to be able to do it, and practiced transferring from our car to her wheelchair and back with the physical therapist when we came to visit.  We too learned: how to help her transfer from wheelchair to car and back and that the wheelchair could possibly be moved to the dining room table so she wouldn’t need to transfer from it to a dining room chair. The wheelchair, however, was bulky and a straight back chair with wooden arms was her seating arrangement of choice.

Admittedly, my husband and I felt some stress. Transporting a fragile elder with issues, is a responsibility. We were very cautious. We repeated our instructions to each other as we made each move–from car to wheelchair, from wheelchair to arm chair and finally back again to wheelchair to car. We could have paid for an aide from the facility to come with us. But that would have been an indulgence and R valued independence–however slight.

3. Is the home elderly-user-friendly? A comfort-height toilet (or grab bars in the correct bathroom location) and a solid straight back armchair with a firm seat provide needed support for older people with weak muscles and elders who are heavy. (I’ve seen elders stuck in a soft-cushion chair at family gatherings, far from the “action” and unable to move.)

4.  Is it better for them or better for us? Although we knew we were capable, we were fearful (unjustified as it turned out), about transporting R from the rehab center to our home for that Thanksgiving dinner. We truly didn’t consider it better for us.

All the “what if’s” came to mind as we were making that decision. And we had a Plan B, just in case. But we knew R wanted to come. What we didn’t realize was the psychological jumpstart getting out and being with family would give her. And the change of environment added to the pluses. She could see her goal. It motivated her–especially at those times when the rehab was very difficult.

Conclusion: My husband and I lost our previous hesitancy to take R out for a brief ride, when it first was allowed. I realized I could help her transfer from car to wheelchair etc. by myself. The week after Thanksgiving  I asked if she would like to go out for lunch at a quiet place not far from the rehab facility. She was so appreciative. And that made me feel good…So it was better her–and for me too!

Related: Encouraging elders’ help in Thanksgiving day preparations

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.

Aging Parents: Halloween Ideas Roundup: Part 2 –8 Things Aging and Elderly Adults Can Look Forward To

kids halloween costume picture

Princesses, witches and pirates are set to rule this Halloween. Credit: Getty.

An active, appropriately-involved grandmother recently said: “Oh! I won’t be able to resist going to my daughter’s and seeing the kids in their costumes before they go trick or treating.” She was looking forward.

We can never be 100% certain when we plan ahead for older people, because stuff happens–usually more for/to them than us. Yet we know giving older people something to look forward to lifts spirits. Below are 8 plan-ahead, look-forward to–ideas…only the party takes real work.

 Halloween fun for Elders

  1. Invite grandparents, older aunts and uncles, and/or any older adults you care about to see your children in their Halloween costumes–either before kids go trick-or-treating or when they come back.
  2. If aging/older friends or relatives are in care facilities, or are basically housebound, take your costumed children for a quick visit–before Halloween if convenient, but afterwards works too. There’s an additional benefit– lifting spirits for every old(er) person in care facilities (those who always sit in the hall in wheel chairs or other chairs) who sees the Halloween-costumed kids walk by.
  3. When grandchildren can safely trick-or-treat with an adult chaperone, invite grandparents to go along (and remain far enough away to be almost invisible?)
  4. When PTAs, recreation departments, elementary schools etc. sponsor Halloween parties, invite at least one aging family member to accompany you, as you transport the kids.
  5. Have a Halloween party at your home. (links below for party ideas). Invite grandparents.
  6. Invite aging parents to come to your home for Halloween to see the trick-or-treaters. (You need’t have children). I remember my parents coming back to visit at Halloween and the excitement following each ring of the doorbell. The high-pitched  “trick or treat” elicited Dad’s compliments about their scary look, great costume etc. They beamed at the compliments as they took their candy. Dad beamed back. Mother, in the background, seemed happy to replenish the candy supply. She too had a big smile on her face as she watched these little kids having such a good time.
  7. Make plans to be at aging parents’ homes during trick-or-treat hours, thus alleviating the fear and apprehension that can accompany a ring of the doorbell on the dark Halloween night. Aging adults can once again enjoy the trick-or-treaters. If few trick-or-treaters come, you have been with your parent(s) and that in itself is a gift (as we know).
  8. Take Older People To See Halloween Displays Details: Click these posts, if you haven’t already seen them.

Probably all older adults went trick-or-treating as kids. How can it not be fun for them to observe youngsters repeating this tradition…….another small aspect of helping parents age well.


Party planning:
Checkout classic Halloween party (last paragraph)