Senior Socialization is Essential to Quality Caregiving
According to the American Psychological Association, “… one of the most difficult problems family members face is achieving a balance between respecting an older adult's autonomy and intervening before self-neglect becomes dangerous.” To that, I would add how hard it is for caregivers to recognize some potentially dangerous patterns of behavior that eventually cause harm; even more so if there are new medical issues or new medications.
For example, older adults are at increased risk for depression. Suppose you notice that your dad hasn’t wanted to visit his friends for a while. When you question him about it, he tells you he has lower back pain and it bothers him to be out for very long. This would be a good reason for him to want to stay home so, you take him to see his primary care physician. Suppose further, that testing fails to show a cause for his complaint. Since you are compassionate, you allow him to sit in his chair for longer periods of time without getting up to move around and you give him more attention than usual as you try to help him get comfortable.
Self-neglect often flies under the radar
During this time, you probably wouldn’t be thinking that his social withdrawal might be the result of feeling depressed because you aren’t looking for it. Besides, his attitude has improved slightly – merely because of your increased concern. His doctor likely indicated that not all causes of pain will show up in tests so, you’d have no reason to consider other possibilities yet. Even your dad might not see it. However, that is the sort of “self-neglect” that seniors can engage in. It isn’t that they are trying to cause themselves harm. It’s just that the older we get, the easier it is to let things go. For a few, it feels like work to eat well, exercise, and be socially involved.
Imagine what your life would be like if you lost your spouse, your ability to drive safely, and many of your friends. How do you think you’d feel? Almost everyone experiences days when they get the blues, but because of numerous responsibilities and a full calendar, they bounce back quickly. When some people retire, they give up their social circle of support they’ve relied on for a very long time. If there isn’t anyone at home who shares their interests and if they don’t feel needed or important to another, they can start on a downward spiral of self-pity. Feeling alone, they just give up trying.
Recent studies have indicated there is a strong correlation between social interaction and quality of life for seniors. The positive effects of an active social life include:
- Improved mood (Less depression and anxiety)
- Slower rate of memory loss
- Better nutritional choices
- Improved physical health in many areas
Not everyone wants to stay connected
Most seniors stay connected on a social level but there are still some who don’t. If your person is one that prefers to be left alone, you could be seeing self-neglect in one of its subtlest forms. It may seem insignificant now, but it’s dangerous to assume nothing serious will come of it. The sooner you intervene, the better.
There are a lot of ways independent seniors can stay socially active such as:
- Join a club or other group
- Visit their local senior center
- Attend classes
But what about those with medical needs? What about the ones who need supervision or help because of physical disabilities, frailty, or cognitive issues? They probably have part or full-time caregivers but that isn’t enough. Socialization means interacting with more than just one or two people outside the family and it includes a belief that they are an active participant in their group. Is there a way caregivers can help them live a socially healthy lifestyle?
The answer is, “Yes” and it benefits seniors and their caregivers as well – since it provides a break from the caring relationship. Adult day centers offer the same basic kinds of activities as senior centers (for those who can get around by themselves) but personalize them for each client to fit their needs. Since activities are structured and supervised, caregivers don’t have to worry about safety. An adult center can also accommodate special diets, toileting, mobility challenges, etc. and will even help arrange for appropriate transportation to and from their facility.
All centers provide at least some activities to help clients maintain their physical and mental well-being but it’s the clientele that determines how much and how intense. No single center is appropriate for everyone so it’s vitally important to make sure your loved one attends the one that fits his or her needs. For example, some cater to people with mild dementia while others care for those in more advanced stages. Some have a busy community while others are quieter. You wouldn’t want your mom to be around a group of men and women she can’t relate to, would you? So, it’s important to visit a place first to make sure you want to consider it.
Naperville Senior Center is a good example of a place that has a lot to offer seniors who only need minimal assistance. Their professional staff includes a full-time physical therapist and part-time registered nurses so they have the means to properly assess a member’s abilities and monitor them as they exercise by walking around an indoor track, working with the NuStep equipment, or playing with the Wii fitness and sports programs. Music, cards, crafts, etc. are also part of a normal day along with a quiet room for when enough is enough. Because of its vibrant atmosphere, it is especially conducive to socializing.
At the other end of the spectrum are the centers to help those who can’t afford as much and/or who can’t do as much. There, daily programs include music therapy; which makes even the most apathetic client feel good. Exercises are less strenuous than active centers and often done while seated for safety reasons. Crafts, puzzles, etc. are available just the same as they are in all centers. Often volunteers will bring in therapy dogs – always a big hit. Sometimes local musicians will stop in and entertain. But the most important activity, even in the most subdued setting, is that members are encouraged to talk to each other.
The point is, that adult day centers are not adult sitting centers. They are places of activity and socialization. No matter how old we get, our quality of life depends on our social skills. We need to maintain them at all cost. Statistics show that older adults who stay active socially do significantly better – they live longer and enjoy life more than those who retire to a life of solitude.
Don’t let your loved one fall into a pattern of self-neglect. Your job is tough enough as it is. Your loved one needs social support and it’s your job to help them get it even if they say they don’t want it. What can you do if they don’t want to go? Here is an excellent article, “How to Convince a Parent to Attend and Adult Day Center” that will give you the answer.