Loneliness and the Elderly – A Challenge for Alaskans

Children may have grown up and moved away. Even when they live nearby, they are involved with their own families and their own careers. Spouses pass away, friends move south and their circle closes while darkness and isolation set in. Especially here in Alaska, our harsh weather combines with diminishing social options and frailty to keep our seniors from enjoying much needed companionship.

And the affects of loneliness can be grave. Recent loneliness studies indicate that for most people, loneliness takes a toll on the subject’s health and causes many more psychological  problems then we may have recognized.

In a previous blog we discussed how loneliness can have an exaggerating affect on the stresses of normal living.

Minor inconveniences—a stopped-up sink, a missed appointment, an overdue bill—can cause negative reactions in senior citizens that appear to be entirely out of proportion to the presenting problem. It is a trait that we all recognize and the word “grumpy” is intimately associated with the word “old.” So much so that the senior citizen in his bathrobe, yelling at kids to get off his lawn has become a running joke.

Researchers who study the issue increasingly speculate that a least a portion of senior-citizen mood deterioration is brought on by isolation. But unfortunately, those that are affected usually have no idea that their decreased equanimity is due to loneliness. They naturally assume their irritation is arising from the incident itself. They therefore tend to retreat from situations that cause them stress and as they become increasingly out of sorts, their family and friends tend to back away. The result is that the thing causing them distress—their isolation—further isolates them. Which increases their negativity which increases their isolation. The situation feeds on itself.

Society in general accepts crotchetiness as a natural part of aging but psychologists have started looking for reasons.  As mentioned, they have isolated loneliness as a major factor in loss of mental wellbeing, and they have included in their studies, not just in the elderly but both others who isolate and prisoners in solitary confinement. In all those isolated individuals they have found similar levels of distress and emotional deterioration. Because of this, researchers are convinced that isolation can cause nervous distress but it cannot tell them why this is true. They can only present theories.

John Cacioppo, for instance, a University of Chicago social psychologist whose field is the biological effects of loneliness, speculates that human evolution has stacked the cards against those who could tolerate isolation. For hundreds of thousands of years, so goes his theory, our ancestors lived as members of a clan. An individual’s lived experience, awake and asleep, was one of intimate proximity to others, much as herd animals experience life today. And just as today’s herding animals put themselves in jeopardy when they stray, so did our ancestors. A tight clan offered protection from attack by hostile clans and preying beasts, and was a vital help with provisions and with protection from the elements. Those individual humans then, who were born with a nervous system that allowed them to tolerate isolation, tended not to survive long enough to pass on the trait. Those who thrived and whose offspring thrived were those to whom isolation brought emotional distress. But because of the difference in the way we live today, the stress that sent their ancestors scurrying back to the clan, now causes our elderly to further isolate.

Here at Midnight Sun Home Care, we have seen over and over that an isolated senior who has become increasingly irritable and suspicious, can be soothed just by regular visits. Originally they would insist that they didn’t want anyone to come in, they couldn’t afford it. They wanted their privacy. They didn’t trust strangers in their house. And even after they were talked into having us, they would often start out being hostile and suspicious.

But the majority comes around. As soon as their nervous systems owned the reality of regular company, they become much calmer and more agreeable. We have found over and over that the researchers are right. Breaking the cycle of isolation- leading-to-stress-leading-to-more-isolation improves emotional wellbeing. We don’t claim we offer a miracle grumpiness-cure, but often we can help. And indeed, occasionally the relief can be so great that our elderly clients over-attribute. They don’t realize that it is just the fact of company alone that has given them such relief; they attribute the easing of their distress to the unique qualities that we bring. We become their super-caretakers.

And of course the relief our client feels extends to interactions with their families. We hear again and again that since we started coming, their loved one is a changed person.

It’s that kind of testimony that makes us proud of our profession. It is another of the services we offer that inspires us to make the claim that Midnight Sun Home Care improves Alaska, one happy senior citizen at a time.

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