What does the evidence say about social isolation for older adults? And why is it more common during the holidays? The first AOTA Everyday Evidence podcast has the answers. Listen to the AOTA Everyday Evidence Podcast on Holiday Blues to the right or listen to the podcast on Stitcher.
For more information, check out the Occupational Therapy Practice Guidelines for Productive Aging Community-Dwelling Older Adults and the American Journal of Occupational Therapy Special Issue on the Relationship Between Occupation and Productive Aging.
Stephanie Yamkovenko: Holiday lights. Cheerful music. Red cups at Starbucks. It should be the most wonderful time of the year, right? But there are many things that can bring us down: shorter days, colder temperatures, inclement weather keeping us indoors, and the stress of finding the right gift for everyone on our lists.
We may all be at risk of having a Blue Christmas ala Elvis Presley, but this is even more of a problem for older adults.
Today we are talking to Melissa Stutzbach, AOTA’s Project Coordinator, contributor to the Evidence-Based Practice Project, and graduate of the Ithaca College occupational therapy program, about how older adults are more at risk for social isolation especially this time of year.
Melissa Stutzbach: Hey, Stephanie. Happy to be here.
Yamkovenko: So first can you just tell us what is social isolation and why are older adults more likely to experience it?
Stutzbach: So social isolation refers to a complete or near complete lack of social contact and activity with others and older adults are more vulnerable to this for many reasons. Often, the death of friends and significant others, which is a reality for many older adults, can take a significant hit on their social support system. We also know that many older adults experience mobility or cognitive limitations that affect their driving ability. And with limited access to transportation, it’s really hard to get out into the community to spend time with family and friends.
Yamkovenko: Ok, so older adults can be lonely and isolated. But how does that affect them? What’s the benefit of being more engaged in their community?
Stutzbach: So research shows that a lack of social activity is associated with negative health outcomes such as dementia and chronic conditions. But on the other hand, there is also strong evidence that a healthy social life can positively impact cognitive and physical function as you age. Research shows that people who are socially active, not only are they going to be happier and have a higher quality of life, but they’re going to live longer.
Yamkovenko: They’re going to live longer?
Yamkovenko: That’s great. So research shows the benefits of social contact, but what does that look like?
Stutzbach: So social contact is really going to take on different meaning for each person, depending on what is important to the person. So for example I know of an older adult that enjoyed getting together to play video games. People can build social networks in all kinds of different ways.
Yamkovenko: Sore there things that older adults can do every day to increase their social contact?
Stutzbach: Well interestingly enough, internet use is increasing more than ever for those 65 and older. My personal favorites are programs such as Facetime or Skype that allow you to video call on your phone or on your computer. So for those older adults that have difficulty leaving the house to see their loved ones otherwise, that face to face connection, though virtual, can help maintain relationships and a sense of connectedness.
Yamkovenko: Ok so that’s great. So they can stay in contact with people even if they are far apart. And so what else can they do, can older adults do, if friends and families aren’t close by?
Stutzbach: Older adults can build and strengthen their social networks right within their own community. Local senior centers or community centers often have a lot to offer such as educational classes, exercise programs, and social groups. I suggest finding a hobby you enjoy sharing with others, commit it to your schedule, and once it becomes a part of your routine, you are more likely to attend and build a community of friends with similar interests. Volunteer opportunities are also a great way to meet people. If you get the chance to volunteer with younger generations, you may benefit from their youthful energy and then it is a great chance to share your wisdom and knowledge from many years of life experience. They’ll feel an enhanced sense of self-worth.
Yamkovenko: So these are great ideas for not being socially isolated, but really this can be a scary thing to start. So where can older adults begin? And how can they know which activity would work best for them? Is there someone who could help them with this?
Stutzbach: Well occupational therapy practitioners are well positioned to help address the issue of social isolation in older adults. To start, we will help you identify interests and social activities that you find meaningful and enjoyable and help you figure out how these can be used to expand your social network. We will then take a closer look at any barriers that might be getting in the way. So for example, for many transportation can be a large issue especially if you have a disability or limitation. With the help of occupational therapy, you can problem solve these issues and become more involved with your community and with the friends and family you love.
Yamkovenko: So how do you make sure that these are things older adults actually want to do?
Stutzbach: So it’s really important to avoid assumptions that older adults like certain activities solely based on their age. It is also important to remember that new and even familiar social experiences might cause stress and anxiety for some, especially those recovering from the loss of a loved one. Occupational therapy practitioners work together with clients to accommodate their needs, interests, and comfort level.
Yamkovenko: Ok thanks, Melissa. So let’s recap: We’re all at risk for getting a little blue during the holidays, but older adults are even more at risk of social isolation. This isolation can affect our health. Thankfully social activity can help us stay cognitively and physically healthy as we age. There are many ways that older adults can get more social contact, and the best way for them to learn about these is to enlist the help of an occupational therapy practitioner. So Melissa, how can older adults get in touch with an occupational therapy practitioners?
Stutzbach: Well you can ask for a referral from your physician or contact an occupational therapy practice or your state occupational therapy association. If you want to learn more about occupational therapy, you can visit the American Occupational Therapy Association’s website at www.aota.org.
Yamkovenko: Great. Thank you. So now it’s time to grab a friend and celebrate getting out of the holidays blues rut with a gingerbread latte in a red cup. I’m Stephanie Yamkovenko, web editor at AOTA. Thank you for listening.