Senior health studies show that social isolation is as important health as flattening the Corona-19 virus infection curve in seniors.
OPINION: It’s Time to Flatten the Loneliness Curve for Older Americans, by Marc Freedman and John Gomperts, was published in Next Avenue, April 20, 2020. The article discusses the impact of social isolation on elder health. This factor was an issue before Covid-19. However, the quarantine has made their social isolation even worse. The article references other countries’ methods of recognizing and responding to social isolation and encouraging elder social engagement. It offers several possible methods to facilitate the development of programs in the USA as engines to promote a better quality of life for seniors and for society in general.
Did you know that grants were made last year to develop a Social Isolation Task Force and create a public education program? These grants were offered to all the state agencies that operate under the mandate of The Older Americans Act.
I was on one of those task forces in my state. The assumption was the public wasn’t aware of the magnitude of social isolation amongst elders. Another assumption was the public wasn’t aware of the effects of social isolation on senior health and cost of care.
Covid-19 changed all that. We‘ve all had a crash course in the experience of social isolation: the Stay-at-Home orders. We’ve seen people reacting, sometimes threatening violence, in a push-back against such measures. Children have suffered socially, emotionally and in their education as a result of being isolated from friends and school. To combat Covid-19, social isolation was one of the few measures we could employ. While we intended to combat the virus with isolation, we didn’t intend to isolate elders before Covid-19. Our society’s systems just didn’t address elder social isolation.
Our society did not face social isolation before because of three factors; our original population, our history, and our lack of a collective memory experience.
Our population was largely imported, usually young adults and their children. Later, they might send for the elders in the old country, or not. A sea voyage could be quite stressful on an older person. Thus, young people settled here. Later, another generation of young people left for the next new frontier. Our history shows that elders were left behind; again, and again. As a result, our focus was a succession of new frontiers. The USA never developed a role or task for elders. Today, our old frontier is closed. It’s time to bring society into the new social frontier: one in which we recognize we are a multi-generational country. There are gifts from each generation. We need to develop a role, and a function that recognizes the value of elders: a living history, perspective and experience.
We also lack a collective memory of the elder’s journey. We all remember things from our childhood; many of us may not “remember” things from our elder hood; unless we have made that journey ourselves. Society hadn’t experienced certain aspects of aging, like social isolation, until now. We should view stay-at-home orders as our chance to learn what life is like for seniors who are forced to stay-at-home.
What puts elders in that position? Their health may not permit frequent trips outside the home. Other elders are trapped at home because they can no longer drive. Public transportation may be too infrequent, too strenuous, or non-existent. Some elders find that vision or hearing problems interfere with socializing. We have few forums in which all generations come together. Religious institutions fill some of that gap but they can’t cover all the bases. Our neighborhoods are often age-segregated. Schools group children into smaller age cohorts: this is not the era of the all-ages, one-room school house. We build age-segregated housing only for elders. How is anyone to learn about the elder journey if our opportunity for observation and interaction are taken away?
Covid-19 has given us a gift in disguise; we all shared some of the elders’ social isolation predicament. We reacted vehemently to these restrictions on ourselves. Now we know what they feel. The recommendations made in this article should be implemented. Let’s learn from this. As the old song says; ”Someday, some d-a-a-y, we’ll be together. Yes we will, yes we will...”
According to The Strange Political Silence On Elder Care, the problem is our society has an extraordinary number of caregivers who haven’t formed a group to push for change. Unlike other groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), caregivers should have formed a constituency to insist on changes which better support them; but they haven’t. Why not? One surprising finding is that caregivers don’t recognize themselves! How can our society offer support to a person who denies needing help? How can we help if they believe they can’t ask? What is the effect of this lack of coalescing, lack of self-identification and the resulting failure to prepare and plan?
This article describes the possible reasons:
Senior Sidekicks has stood with caregivers for the past 12 years! The caregiving phase is the newest part of life’s journey. A little over 100 years ago, people didn’t live long enough to reach this stage. Our firm has struggled to get new caregivers and those in the midst of caregiving to accept help. Perhaps this article explains why people, who are otherwise prudent, take such a strange view of caregiving.
Let’s compare and contrast caregiving attitudes with attitudes to other parts of life’s journey:
Your getting married, do you make plans? What kind of a wedding would you have if you didn’t acknowledge you were engaged? How would you bring your lives together in marriage: legal, financial, religious, integrating your families, where to live, and children?
My parents, like many during WWII, had a hurry-up wedding. They were high school sweethearts, and engaged in college. When my father finished his course work and ROTC, he was shipped to Texas. The university mailed his diploma. My mother took the train to Texas and they were married by a preacher on base. They had 3 weeks of wedded bliss before he shipped out for 3 years!
Mother went home to a fire storm! Both sets of parents were in shock. Mother had not completed her college education; could she go back and finish? Would the all-girls school take her back as a married woman? Neither of my parents had completed paperwork naming her his spouse? Forms and letters took a long time to reach soldiers in the field and even longer to receive replies. Who would be the listed next-of-kin in the event he didn’t come home? She even had to discuss possible burial arrangements!! Who was now responsible to pay for her education? Was she to receive his pay since she was his spouse? Mother described it as a very trying time that she had to face alone because they didn’t plan.
Weddings are as much a family matter as caregiving. A wedding, without planning, causes major stress. Caregiving, without planning and support also causes major stress. Yet, families will tell me they’ll handle it all by themselves: really?
Let’s look at another example:
You’re having a baby! Does that mean you don’t need any help? If you’re expecting do you still need proper medical care, resolve legal matters, insurance, or a larger place to live? We expect that expectant parents need help. We’ve developed the social systems to provide it. Having children brings many resources into the family. There are Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for both parents in certain situations. There are prepared childbirth classes, visiting nurses to the home after delivery and new mother’s groups. Relatives come to help the new mother and baby. Everybody sends food!
It’s acceptable to have help for babies, why not for caregivers? The difference is we’ve had babies for millennia; caregivers, less than 100 years.
Thus, the family caregiver may or may not receive some defacto help from her church, neighbors, or friends. There’s no visiting nurse system. The caregiver can take FMLA but it’s complicated and doesn’t always cover the type of caregiving the employee needs to give the elder. Many FMLAs don’t pay the employee. Caregiving may mean moving the elder closer to the caregiver, or moving in with the elder. Caregiving may be so demanding that it afflicts the caregiver’s health. The caregiver may be forced to quit the job. A break in the caregiver’s career creates a major financial setback as the caregiver tries to re-enter the workforce. Caregivers often draw on their retirement savings during caregiving.
Other developed countries have seen this writing on the wall and started putting plans in place. Why can’t the US do that? We can, if we act now.
You can do two things:
Talk to your neighbors. Ask what your church is doing for caregivers? Ask your employer the same thing. FMLA, by itself, is not an adequate response.) Are you a member of a union; put caregiver support on the bargaining table. We already have mandatory courses in sexual harassment and discrimination. Make caregiving training the next mandatory course. Are you an employer? If you prepare for tornadoes; prepare for this gray tsunami. By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over age 60
ENTER THE POLITICAL DEBATE ON THE SIDE OF CAREGIVERS: It’s time to insist that the political conversation of this campaign is about p-r-e-p-a-r-i-n-g for this gray tsunami! It touches everyone. It’s not red or blue, it’s GRAY. Candidates will ask for your vote; tell them to put caregiving in their platform to get your vote!
Caregiving is at least as important as any other policy
As we approach the holidays, we consider visiting elderly relatives or arranging for them to visit us. While I cannot offer a guarantee of a pleasant visit, here are a few things to keep in mind to avoid some of the pitfalls
When families gathered on Thanksgiving day, some realized that their senior was not the same as last year. Families often respond by doing internet research. The internet is a good first step. However, some sites make outlandish claims. I saw one that offered a treatment that “cured Alzheimer’s”. There is no cure and some of these sites can offer dangerous suggestions.
Here are a few reputable sites that offer reliable information:
Alzheimer's Association. This site also has a page devoted to explaining the different types of dementia. It also lists other physical conditions or environmental conditions that can look like dementia.
American Society on Aging. It can feel encyclopedic in size. The society has done decades of research and offers reliable information. It’s a good second step.
AARP offers many programs and information for families as well as seniors. Each state has a chapter with offices in each area. Look up your state to find help in your area.
And Senior Sidekicks offers a course; Preparing to Parent Your Parent, to prepare families for the practical issues they will face as they become caregivers. Contact us about teaching this course in your church or at your job. Call (217) 787-5866 or email us for more information.
How do you know when this old house is the wrong house now? Seniors who are reluctant to move may refuse to leave.
One senior refused to leave her old neighborhood even though the neighborhood had changed. As she left for church one morning, she was shot in the heart by a stray bullet. Waiting to move until there’s a crisis means the senior loses control of the move. The senior who was shot was moved by others. They didn’t know what she had wanted to take with her; she lost some things which made her very sad.
Taking your senior on a decision-making journey helps them to see for themselves that things have changed. A senior realized a move was necessary when she needed more medical care. The house by the lake was too far away. She spent anxious moments waiting for first responders to arrive when she was in need.
A house is not a home, even though some seniors think they’re the same. One senior wanted to keep e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, including the china hutch. She measured her new apartment to show it would fit. However, the movers couldn’t get it through the front door. Perhaps it doesn’t fit after all. What else won’t “fit”? We move into a house and we make it a home.
What’s really important to your senior? It’s probably not the kitchen sink or the screen door. Important things, like photos and mementos, can go anywhere. These can go to the next housing phase. Senior won’t lose the important things: their history.
One family referred to the next phase of housing as a new “home”. Their senior dug in her heels and refused to do anything! The family called for my help. I asked the senior to define the word “home”. She described an early 20th century county old age home! I explained that the last of those had been torn down years ago. I offered her a different option; her own apartment with indoor mail box and a grounds crew to mow and shovel. She was willing to learn more.
How has your senior’s old neighborhood changed? Sometimes they need to see it for themselves. I took my Grandfather out to his front porch. Together we remembered the old neighborhood. He talked about the people who once lived there, the streetcar track, and the horses stabled at the end of the street. Each time I asked him, “Where are they now?” At the end he was silent for a moment. Then he said;”They’re all gone”. I offered that if all the people and horses had left, maybe it was OK for him to move on as well. “I like my front porch!” my Grandfather said emphatically. “You’re right; your next place MUST have a front porch!” I said just as emphatically. Then my grandfather pointed to the two trees in the front yard. “I planted those to shade the house”, he said. “They do a great job”, I told him. “100 years from now, they’ll stand as a testament to your efforts”.
Referring to changes as; the next phase of life, works better than to call it; giving up your home. One of my clients was forced to move when she was robbed at home, twice! Even so, she was very upset about leaving. I took her for lunch and a tour of a senior apartment building. She gazed in awe at the beautiful chandelier in the lobby. She did a double-take when a uniformed waiter asked for our luncheon order. After lunch, we toured several apartments. As we drove back to her house I asked her what she thought. “It looks so nice”, she said, “When can I move?”
Another senior had been a great gardener. He was unhappy about leaving his garden. I contacted a newly-constructed facility and asked about gardening plots. On our tour, they pointed out future space for residents’ gardens. The senior explained that the area had too much shade and offered another part of the yard. Since the plots were not yet set, the staff agreed to consider his idea. He would be their gardening consultant! He moved.
Seniors may see a change of housing as a loss of who they used to be; show them how they keep their interests, their memories and mementos.
If you would like our Free Has Your Senior Outgrown The House? Checklist please check mark your request below, and submit.
One of my patients recently complained. I asked her what her doctor said. She told me she had forgotten to tell her doctor. She told me that she had become used to the problem and “accepted” it. Many senior-related articles advise writing down symptoms and questions before visiting the doctor. Good advice; as far as it goes. It’s the stuff that falls off the radar that could be the most important. The doctor needs information from the patient or the patient’s advocate. That information is the basis to decide which questions/tests to pursue.
What kind of information doesn’t get to the doctor?
Age is a stage of life, not a diagnosis. Sadly, some seniors think is a diagnosis. Seniors may accept pain or changes in their bodies as “just getting old”. Pain is a symptom. It’s our body’s way of telling us (at any age) that something isn’t working. Please take your senior’s complaints seriously, even if all they say is; “I don’t feel good.” That complaint is a place to start. Repeated complaints indicate a persistent problem. I use three points to examine complaints: frequency, intensity, and duration. How often do they complain? How long have they complained? Do they report things are worse or better than earlier? Doctors analyze these kinds of information to help them decide what questions to ask next. Please complain; it’s helpful.
Some seniors believe they shouldn’t complain. You may need to explain to them that this is a report on their health rather than an annoyance. Some seniors complain without words. Does the face contort? Does the voice tighten? Do they seem more irritable at certain times of the day? Something’s going on. Ask them to please complain to you out loud.
Earlier this year I knew something was “off” within me. I went to the doctor but the lab tests were inclusive. Nevertheless, I persisted. I tracked what I felt and when. I brought this information back to the doctor and insisted on considering other options. Eventually my pattern was clear enough to prompt the doctor to ask other questions. I received a new medication and it worked! I complained, but really I was advocating for myself. Some seniors cannot self-advocate. That’s why caregivers are so important. Please persist if the first treatment doesn’t work. Please complain for them.
By the way; this is a portion of my course; Preparing to Parent Your Parent. Senior Sidekicks can bring this course to your church at a time convenient to you.
Imagine you’re sitting quietly in a meeting or religious services; suddenly your heart starts pounding. You feel like your blood is coursing through the veins in your arms and legs. It’s bewildering and scary: Why?! There is nothing about this setting that calls for such a reaction. Yet, you have this reaction. It is important that caregivers understand what leads to this reaction and what they can do about it.
It’s a “fight or flight response gone wrong. It developed when we had to run away from Saber Tooth Tigers. Our ancestors were successful, that’s why we’re here. Those ancestors passed down to us their methods of coping with their world. Our modern world doesn’t have the same kinds of stressors, especially for caregivers. Our stressors are less clearly defined And they last longer. Our stressors change shape; one minute we’re dealing with the house-the spouse-the kids-and-the job. Then there’s a crisis and we’re caregivers for Mom! From that point forward, our caregiving increases but with no way to know when the need will become greater or how long caregiving will last.
Our bodies respond as our ancestors’ once did; we produce Cortisol to rise to this crisis. The process goes like this: Stress causes the Hypothalamus to secrete. That triggers the Pituitary Gland to secrete. The Adrenal gland secretes Cortisol. This process has several names: HPA Axis, HPA Cascade or Syndrome X, or AKA Insulin Resistive Syndrome. (Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could all agree on one name?) It’s not the crisis that’s the problem. It’s the crisis that doesn’t end that creates bad effects on caregivers.
The effects show up in different ways. Cortisol encourages promotes fat deposits in the outer layer of the body, especially the waist. Some caregivers gain weight. We can measure this effect by doing a BMI (Body Mass Index). Other caregivers have different conditions; heart disease, Type-2 Diabetes and Stroke. We can measure Cholesterol levels through a C-Reactive Protein lab test. We can also do a cheek swab to check Cortisol level. However, how many doctors don’t even ask patients if they are caregivers. The tests are there but they are not used to evaluate identified caregivers at this time on a general basis. You need to ask for them.
When our bodies rise to meet a crisis: they must also let down. Even Saber Tooth Tigers would give chase and then give up. The caregiver’s duties do not end the same way. In fact, they do not “end” unless we place some “ending points” into the caregiver’s life. That is the role of self care, to provide end points such as respite and small moments. That’s why it’s necessary to spread the caregiving load so it doesn’t fall on one person. That is why we need to enlist family to give caregivers this kind of support. Otherwise, the caregiver can be sitting quietly in religious services and the Cortisol response “alarms” for no exterior reason. We need to advocate for caregivers to be recognized in the medical arena. Learn more by taking our course; Preparing to Parent Your Parent.
When someone advises you to, “take care of yourself”; that doesn’t explain how. Elder caregiving is so new that some methods are still under development. However, we know some things that work and some to avoid. Self care does not mean a day at the spa. For many caregivers such a day would be out of reach financially or out of time to devote to a spa. Therefore, plan to care for yourself in moments, not hours. Think about your life like your heart; it beats all the time. Actually your heart takes a tiny rest between each beat that allows it keep going. When you care for yourself in moments, you pause and continue.
Try these ideas. Put up a sign saying, I NEED A MOMENT, to remind yourself to pause. Put up other signs family can see to remind them that you might need a moment before you can respond to their requests. Is the person in need bleeding or on fire? If the answer is no, then it’s OK for you to take a moment. It’s OK to train your family to allow you to do so. It’s OK for you to ignore repeated pleas for your attention (for a moment). Training takes time but you’re worth it.
What do you do in that moment? Be sure you are safe. If you’re up on a ladder, get down first. Focus on something blank, like a wall or the ceiling. Breathe, deeply, through your nose, hold and count to 3 or 4. Let your breath out through your mouth but slowly; 1-2-3-4. Now, if you can afford the time, try looking at something peaceful; out a window, at a picture, or at some memento that is meaningful to you. Breathe again the same way.
Many caregivers respond with; “I don’t have time to …” You’re right, time is at a premium. Most caregivers find themselves in that role at the same point they also have the house-the spouse-the kids-the job-the pets and MOM! You have a lot on your plate. Sometimes caregivers believe they can wait until they have time. By waiting until later, the damage from lack of self care will have done its worst. Undoing damage is much harder. The best intervention is prevention. Prevention comes in bits of time you claim now.
Suppose you actually have a whole hour to yourself. It’s a gift! Ask yourself, “What refreshes me?” Notice I didn’t say what can I eat nor where can I sit down? Some caregivers eat to cope with stress. We need nourishment but not that way. Rhythmic movement, like walking, can help us feel less worn and is surprisingly refreshing. If you can’t go far; walk around the house or around the block. If you live in an apartment building, walk in the hall. “Go get the mail”, that errand will buy you a few minutes. Try to set a self care routine just as you have set other routines with child care or at work. Routines help us get things done without doing us in.
Some things to avoid include sugar and alcohol. The stress hormone, Cortisol, takes sugar and converts it into weight around your middle. Sugar may not be sweet; baked goods convert to sugar. As part of a balanced meal they’re fine; as a snack, not so much. Large amounts of food can have a numbing effect; like a Thanksgiving dinner. When we feel numb, our minds seem to turn off. When you see you have time and turn to the refrigerator; ask yourself why are you eating? In a similar way, alcohol can create a numb feeling. We believe we’re relaxed but a caregiver’s immune system is more vulnerable and needs extra protection that alcohol doesn’t provide. Alcohol is also a depressant, which won’t help caregivers.
So how does one “turn off” the constant “list-making” that goes on in the caregiver’s mind? Try other things. Try relaxing teas like Passion Flower, Elder Flower or Chamomile. Try playing some relaxing music that’s meaningful to you. Try a rhythmic movement “dance” (try it with your partner). Try a hot shower or better, a hot bath. Try placing essential oil of lavender in your bedroom. All of these set the stage for relaxation. Develop your own mediation or routine to think about at bed time instead of a to-do list. There are also tapes available. So self care comes in moments you claim as your own. To learn more ways to cope, take our course: Preparing to Parent Your Parent.
This is the first of a three part series about the often-heard advice to caregivers to “take care of yourself”.
What does that mean? Since elder caregiving is relatively new, many caregivers aren’t sure. Let’s begin with the word self care; it means considering yourself as part of the caregiving plan. Your health and mental well-being are a vital part of providing care. Think of your contribution in other ways: wouldn’t you take care of equipment used to care for the elder? Wouldn’t you make sure to have enough supplies on hand? Wouldn’t it be hard to provide care without equipment and supplies? Think how much harder would it be if you weren’t able to provide care? You’re the most important part.
Caregivers may believe that they should put their needs aside: no! That’s like pouring yourself out without putting anything back. Such a belief leads to caregiver burnout. Some caregivers burnout emotionally, others develop health problems, and still others find their families are disrupted. All are symptoms of burnout. Many symptoms go unrecognized. Now that you are aware, you can be alert to the influence of caregiving on your life.
Some caregivers believe that the entire task is theirs alone; not necessarily. Part of self care is letting go of that assumption. We ask for help in other parts of our lives; accountants, plumbers, physical therapists, or lawn crews. No one believes these helpers take away our responsibility; they contribute to our successful process.
What do you do in a typical day? How many of those tasks require direct interaction with the elder? Who else could do them? For example; laundry must be done. Why does it have to be you? Does it matter to the elder who does it? Letting others into the care process is part of letting go. Letting others in is part of self care.
Self care can mean admitting to yourself that you feel certain things in response to caregiving. Some of those feelings are not too “nice”. Frustration, anger, despair and sadness are all parts of the caregiving journey. If a friend came to you admitting to these feelings would you send them away? Perhaps you would listen to them and sit with them. Sadly, I meet caregivers who whisper their negative feelings if they say anything at all! Part of self care is becoming your own “best friend”. You and that self need to talk to each other. Admitting to those not-nice feelings doesn’t make bad things happen. In fact, it allows you to let out some of the pressure behind those emotions. Self care begins with recognition of one’s value, affirmation and support for the caregiver.
To learn more, take our course: Preparing to Parent Your Parent or call (217) 787-5866
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.