Handling loneliness in elderly

“When thinking about companions gone, we feel ourselves doubly alone.” Sir Walter Scott

With changing social structures, lifestyles becoming more individualistic and shrinking families, loneliness has become almost synonymous with ageing. One of the most dreaded notions about our end of life is the ‘feeling of being alone’. These notions are not unfounded. Currently, elderly Indians are more than 10% of our population which means around 11.5 crore are senior citizens (60 years and above) in India. This number is set to double in the next few decades. As we age, social needs tend to change and so does our ability to engage. A common misconception is also mistaking depression for loneliness or vice versa.

Clinical Depression is a mental health disorder and it is a continued feeling of hopelessness over a longer period of time, there is also loss of appetite and sleep, combined with a prolonged feeling of sadness. Depression needs medical attention and serious intervention across age groups. Various studies across years have revealed that almost one third of the Indian geriatric population is prone to depression with females being more vulnerable.

While depression and loneliness have strong correlations, each needs to be understood and addressed separately. Loneliness is a psychosocial problem. It is not the same as staying alone or being an introvert. One can feel lonely and isolated even in the company of other people. An elderly experiences loneliness, when the feeling of social alienation supersedes everything else.

Elders with disabilities or serious health conditions experience a higher sense of loneliness. There are multiple other reasons for loneliness in the elderly- elders not able to step out due to mobility issues, hearing and visibility being adversely impacted due to age, financial hardships, impaired interpersonal relationships and many times the death of a loved one. Loneliness in elderly contributes to disability and morbidity. One can start preparing for this early on. Loneliness has to be handled on a war footing almost in your middle age. Taking care of your physical health is the single most important thing to do right from your 30s. Chronic conditions can make life very crippling. Combine this with mobility issues and it even starts becoming difficult to be around your own home and engaging with family members. Young elders in their late 60s and 70s should continue to do some form of physical exercise and stretching diligently to also regain a sense of independence. 

Remaining socially active and staying in touch with friends and family is vital to one’s well being in years to come. In the post pandemic world we have been forced to resort to technology and elders are slowly picking up and relying on communication tools like Whatsapp and Zoom. It is also an opportunity for intergenerational bonding, grandchildren or young volunteers spending time with elders to equip them to a digital social life! Simple things like playing videos of old songs on youtube or streaming an old rerun of a favourite TV series can help elders be independently engaged. Surrounding them and equipping elders with the right technology can prove to be very beneficial in preventing boredom. Offline and in person activities like forming and being involved in various kinds of communities such as society welfare associations, or with NGOs or places of worship can also be very productive for elders. It gives a sense of purpose and can be a great avenue to use their vast experience and guide youngsters.

The society should not accept loneliness as a bitter part of the lives of the elderly and it is not an ‘obvious sign of growing old’. Step up, intervene and act as soon as you feel that someone is withering away, quieter or not their usual self. A happy elder is not a myth, it only needs a little bit of effort and some priceless time from the community. The ‘soon to be 100 years old’ Iris Apfel says “When we were small children, we all played dress up, and everyone had a good time. So, why stop?”

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