Loneliness a big challenge for the aging
November 13, 2019
When Cindy Vrba visits the elderly residents of St. Joseph Retirement Community in West Point, she has a goal.
“I just try to make a little difference in their lives,” she said.
It’s the little things they appreciate, she said – listening, asking questions, showing an interest in them.
More seniors could use that sort of attention. Many are isolated and lonely, statistics indicate. About 30 percent of people ages 50 to 80 reported feeling a lack of companionship or loneliness, according to a survey completed this year by the University of Michigan.
The absence of others in their lives can be especially acute around the holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are traditional times for families to come together.
Isolation and loneliness can be as bad for health as obesity and smoking, according to research by AARP, an advocacy group for seniors.
People who are not active socially seem to decline faster cognitively, too, said Deacon David Probst, pastoral care director at New Cassel Retirement Center in Omaha.
“It’s important that they stay involved,” he said.
Deacon Probst said four main losses tend to isolate people: the death of a spouse or loved one, declining health, losing the ability to drive and the loss of nearby relatives to watch over them.
Safety concerns also keep some seniors isolated. “They watch the news and they worry,” he said.
“When people realize their bodily strength is waning, they might feel inadequate, said Msgr. Bill Whelan, a retired archdiocesan priest living at St. John Vianney Residence in Omaha. They might feel isolated when they are no longer able to do everything for themselves and feel dependent on others.
“It’s not good to dwell on loneliness,” he said.
But there are ways that loved ones, volunteers and others can help. And there are some things seniors can do for themselves if they feel isolated or lonely. Being rooted in a relationship with God is especially important, Msgr. Whelan said.
Do not cast me aside in my old age; as my strength fails, do not forsake me.
Vrba, a medication aide at St. Joseph and a member of St. Mary Parish in West Point, said her interest in helping the elderly began with her grandmother, who would take her on nursing home visits. They would bring treats for friends or anyone who might be alone, Vrba said. Sometimes they would take the residents for car rides.
Her parents also found ways to help, she said, and were ready to bring a casserole or gift to anyone in need.
Kathy Bigelow, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna and a regular volunteer at New Cassel, helps with grief groups there, interviews new residents to determine their pastoral needs, serves as a sacristan and helps with Bible studies and movie gatherings.
What she gets in return are lessons in life and aging, she said.
“The people here really teach you how to live,” she said. “They have their priorities straight. They’re a great example. They’re appreciative of anything you do for them.”
“So many people here are aging gracefully,” said Bigelow, a retired teacher who volunteers as part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot,” she said. “My health is still good, and I want to do what I can to help.”
Some residents seem lonely when they first arrive at New Cassel, Bigelow said, but they adjust as they get to know more people.
Theresa Kresha certainly has adjusted after three years of living at the senior residence. She moved in after her husband of 66 years died.
“We grew up together and we grew old together,” Kresha said.
She said she still misses him but keeps busy as a sacristan – she helped train Bigelow – and as part of a quilting group and a Bible study. She takes in movies and other entertainment.
WAYS TO HELP
Vrba said there are numerous ways to help keep seniors feeling happy and connected:
- Go through a scrapbook together. This is especially good for seniors who might suffer from memory loss, she said. Most seniors enjoy telling stories of how they grew up, what their grandparents were like or what they did when they were young, Vrba said. “Any type of reminiscing.” Visitors benefit by learning about history, she said, and the seniors benefit, too. “When you show an interest in what they did, it makes them feel good.”
- Stop by for a visit, send a card or call by phone.
- Bring a meal, or even just a cookie to have with coffee.
- Take a senior out for a car ride.
- Say a prayer together. “It’s amazing how they can remember prayers, even if they can’t remember who you are,” said Vrba, who said she particularly enjoys working in the memory care unit at St. Joseph. “It’s more of a challenge, and it’s important to brighten their day,” she said of the unit’s residents.
- Give a hug.
- Just sit down and watch television with a senior.
- Bring along your children, because many seniors love their visits.
Deacon Probst added his own suggestions:
- “Simple face-to-face time,” he said. And if that’s not possible, try Facetime via social media or emails.
- Set up regular times for coffee or tea.
- Extend an invitation to lunch or dinner.
- Allow visits with a pet. Pets can be therapeutic. New Cassel residents flock to dogs that New Cassel brings in for residents, Deacon Probst said. Seniors who still live at home could take a short walk with their dog, giving them an opportunity to stop and chat with people.
He also offered tips for seniors for staying socially active:
- Make connections with people who have similar interests or backgrounds.
- Take part in social activities like bingo, Bible studies, movies and birthday celebrations.
- Go to Mass. Mass is an opportunity for Catholics to gather in faith, he said. Many seniors are able to do that at their neighborhood or community church. When they are no longer able to live at home, residences like New Cassel offer daily Mass.
‘FAMILY IS OUR HOME’
Msgr. Whelan stressed the importance of family in caring for seniors. Family gives people a sense of belonging and worth, he said. “Family is our home on earth.”
He said family relationships should take precedence over work, careers, entertainment and friendships.
Msgr. Whelan also stressed the importance of faith in combating loneliness.
God can provide a consolation that no human can, he said.
Anyone, especially as they are approaching old age, can renew their spiritual life and turn more toward God as they get older, he said.
“I would counsel them that as they draw closer to God (and death), they need to make their relationship deeper.”
He urged people who feel lonely to pray “God, do not abandon me in my old age,” based on Psalm 71.
“God, you are everything,” Msgr. Whelan said to pray. “You’re the answer to my loneliness.”
TAKE HOLD OF PRAYER
Most Catholics have developed ways to pray over their lifetime. Msgr. Whelan said he encourages people to turn to those prayer forms and “know that God will be there.”
“When we’re searching for God, we have to take hold of our prayer,” he said. “We live in a temporal world, but there’s a deeper meaning. We thirst for him and need to find him.”
“We’re made for communion with God, but we don’t really know how personal and real that can be.” He is a person who is “really real,” Msgr. Whelan said, and “he has a plan for us.”
“It’s very beautiful the way God has planned life,” he said. People become more dependent as they grow old, and they can turn more to God in their needs, he said. “We can’t do everything for ourselves, and we find ourselves needing God. God is provident, but we need a relationship with him.”
The retired priest said he often stops by the chapel at St. John Vianney to pray, where he finds “a wonderful peace,” gratitude and communion with God. “The Spirit of Love provides tremendous consolation in times of need.”
Archbishop George J. Lucas has been urging all of his flock to discover an encounter with Jesus, Msgr. Whelan said. “It’s a wonderful consolation.”
“I find that my relationship with Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit helps me find solutions to problems and helps me make decisions,” he said. “I promised to not make any decisions without him.”
A relationship with God helps people find the peace and comfort they need, he said. And they will discover that they are “not really alone.”
“When you feel alone, turn to Christ,” he advised. “He is a friend, God with us, Emmanuel. Christ is a wonderful friend for all of us.”