As we age, many of our experiences are beautiful and rewarding, like welcoming grandchildren into the world, having the time to travel, volunteering, or focusing on hobbies. At the same time, aging can bring tough losses, especially the loss of friends and family. These losses can understandably lead to a sense of isolation and, in some cases, depression.
To overcome such feelings, it's important that your loved one has a supportive community, where they can build new friendships and rediscover a purpose for their life. In fact, spiritual direction is a great way to redirect your loved one's thoughts and motivations. So, once you've identified the signs your loved one is isolating themselves, you can encourage and help them find spiritual direction. Here's how.
Common Signs of Isolation
It can be difficult to identify signs of isolation, especially because some isolation is healthy. But, if you notice your loved one acting differently than normal (i.e. declining invites when they used to love getting out of the house), it may be an indication they're isolating themselves. Here are some of the common signs of isolation.
Lack of Interest
A lack of interest in activities or social events is often a sign of loneliness. Ironically, when seniors lose interest in visiting friends, going out to dinner, or taking a walk, the lack of interaction only increases the sense of loneliness and isolation. If you’re seeing this kind of reluctance in your loved one, one way to help is to schedule regular visits (routine is important) and offer to go with them to various events. Similarly, you can help by offering to take them, along with their friends, on special outings, such as to a movie or on a museum visit.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
Changes in sleep patterns can be a normal part of aging but can also signal signs of loneliness. These changes may take the form of insomnia, a reluctance to get out of bed in the morning, or long and frequent naps — especially if these are unusual behaviors for your loved one. Poor sleep patterns can affect all aspects of a person’s physical and mental health, so it’s important that they’re addressed. If you suspect or are aware your loved one’s sleep patterns have changed, encourage them to see their doctor to address any medical concerns.
Poor or Unusual Dietary Practices
Poor or unusual dietary practices are another potential sign that something may be amiss. It’s normal for appetites to decrease as we age, but if you’re seeing a loved one eating an unusual diet or not eating enough fresh foods, talk with them. It may be that they’re not getting to the grocery store as often as needed, or they’ve lost interest in cooking for themselves. You can help by taking them to the grocery store regularly and encouraging them to choose healthy foods. Items that are easy to prepare are a better option than those that take a lot of preparation. You can also suggest sharing a meal or two each week.
How Spiritual Direction Helps
Feeling like your life has purpose and meaning is one of the most important elements of a full and rich life. If your loved one is struggling to find purpose in their life, spiritual direction could help. Here are some examples of spiritual direction that's proven to change lives.
The first step to overcoming isolation and finding a renewed purpose can be as simple as having one-on-one interactions. You can schedule a day every week to visit with your loved one or encourage them to regularly meet with a friend.
At The Goodman Group, our Spiritual Care Directors make it a priority to spend time with residents. In the past, Spiritual Care Directors read to blind residents on a weekly basis, played cards with residents, or lead a small-group conversation.
"What is important to us is intense, personalized care," says Hutch, Director of Spirituality for The Goodman Group.
Creating Friendships in Senior Living
It can be difficult and uncomfortable for your loved one to make new friends as they age. What was easy when they were kids, college-aged, or new to a job, now brings them outside their comfort zone. But it's important that they maintain friendships. Encourage your loved one to start conversations with people they meet in their senior living community because you never know what a conversation will lead to.
Clare knows firsthand the importance of friendships. She saw her mother, Ginny struggle with isolation when living on her own. After helping Ginny move into Terracina Grand, a senior living community in Naples, Florida, she saw her mom blossom. “They all have common interests and common activities,” Clare says. Now, Clare says her mom is so involved that she often doesn't hear from her for a few days because her social calendar is so full.
"Friendships naturally create and broaden community," Hutch says. "Belonging to others and being included can help lift one’s spirit.”
Another means to overcoming isolation is encouraging seniors to serve others, and it doesn’t have to be a huge effort. “Even if it’s just sitting in their home and helping someone else make a card or organize photos, it's a way to engage and give purpose to their lives,” Hutch says.
When individuals serve together, it combines service with friendship. “Serving with another person is key," he says. "Friendships and spirits seem to soar when residents are serving. Through serving another person, we find our sense of purpose and meaning.”
Staff at The Goodman Group have seen this work countless times. Hutch recalls one resident feeling deeply isolated for a number of reasons. He didn't feel connected and began showing signs of Parkinson's, something that further pushed him toward isolation. A Spiritual Care Director met with him and learned he previously worked for NASA and had met presidents and celebrities. The director encouraged him to share his stories, so he began typing out his life experiences. Now, he feels a sense of purpose in sharing his life story.
Although isolation is common among seniors, it doesn't have to become a problem. There are several great ways to get your loved ones involved in the community around them, connect them to others, and encourage them to serve others. With a little effort from family and caregivers, your loved one can maintain a fulfilling, productive, and purposeful life.