The benefits of social interaction for the elderly
Research has shown that 23% of people aged 75+ in the UK don’t see or speak with someone every day and 13% of over 55s only speak to someone three or four times a week. As you can imagine, this is a very lonely and isolated life that much of the older generation leads. Aside from putting a smile on an older person’s face, what other benefits are created through social interaction with the elderly? Acorn Stairlifts, stockists of stairlifts, investigate:
An improved quality of life
Research has discovered that social interaction for just one hour a week can improve the lives of elderly people with dementia living in nursing homes. Key care home staff were trained to deliver person-centered care such as providing residents one-to-one time and talking to residents about their interests in one study. The scheme improved quality of life and reduced agitated and aggressive behavior amongst dementia sufferers. It was also noticed that patients did not need as much antipsychotic medicine as they were more relaxed.
The charity Impetus offers a neighborhood befriending scheme to the elderly and physically disabled through volunteers who visit those who are prone to social exclusion. They operate in the Brighton and Hove area of England but there are many similar schemes across the country too. They discovered that 54% of people felt more connected by participating in the scheme and 42% felt less depressed.
People who frequently engage in activities with friends or family, or have reliable form of contact, have a more positive outlook on life than those who don’t. One telephone befriending service encourages volunteers to phone an older person on a regular basis to stimulate conversation. Many positives have come from the scheme, including the alleviation of loneliness and anxiety, greater confidence in the person who is receiving the calls and the reassurance that there is a friend out there.
When residents of St Monica Trust in Bristol enjoyed six weeks of children visiting their home, they were found to have improved moods, mobility and memory.
There are many health benefits that the older generation can gain through socializing and interacting with other people. Simon Pedzisi, Director of Care Services at a care home in London said, “If people are well stimulated and live meaningful lives, they’re going to eat well. They’re then at less risk of dehydration and falling, therefore you’ll lower the risk of hospital admission”.
As we’re aware, memory loss and confusion are common amongst the older generation as dementia and Alzheimer’s become more of a threat. When older people are experiencing loneliness, they are then at a higher risk of cognitive decline. In fact, one study concluded that lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia. Unfortunately, depression and anxiety often soon follow a dementia diagnosis. If this can be deterred, it can improve overall health.
It is not only interaction with humans that can have positive effects. Scientists have known for many years that owning a pet brings a range of health benefits. These include lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and feelings of loneliness, as well as greater exposure to exercising and socializing opportunities.
Pet owners have also been found to visit the doctor less often and recover more quickly from surgery and illness. Understandably, some older people are not capable of caring for an animal full-time, but there are some ways that they can benefit from pet therapy. In some social schemes, an animal is introduced into a care home so that the residents can interact with them and form companionship.
When someone rates highly for social wellbeing, they may also have lower levels of interleukin-6. This is an inflammatory factor which has been found to cause age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and some cancer types. The Alzheimer’s Society also raised the concern that those who are not socially active will not have as high sleep quality as those who are more sociable. A lack of a good quality sleep in elderly people has been found to contribute to memory loss.
What schemes are out there?
Although loneliness is still a huge problem, there are some programs that are addressing the issue. Professor Mima Cattan, who specializes in research around loneliness in older people, said that the following types of activities are the most effective loneliness interventions:
- Group-based and targeted at a specific group
- Focused on a shared interest or with an educational focus
- Involves older people in running the group
One innovation is intergenerational care. In Singapore, plans are in place to co-locate childcare facilities and senior centers under one roof. Ten new projects are in the pipeline to be rolled out in the next decade and the aim is to encourage bonding across different ages and help Singaporeans age confidently.
In the United States, there are many similar initiatives. One in particular is located in the campus of Providence Mount St Vincent, a care home for more than 400 older people in Seattle. But it also doubles as a nursery for children aged from six weeks to five years. On a regular basis, the children visit the residents and vice-versa, both enjoying similar activities such as singing, arts and crafts, and cooking. The elderly people feel joy when they see the younger children and feel that they have more of a purpose — simultaneously, the children can learn lots of things from the residents too.
In Halton, England, there is a community wellbeing project in place. This involves Community Wellbeing Officers, who provide one-to-one sessions to those who are most at risk of loneliness. Together, they discuss an individual’s wellbeing and create a plan of action as to how issues can be tackled. This could be by signing up to some social activities or a befriending scheme. Results have shown that 64% of participants improved their wellbeing levels after an intervention and 55% reported a reduction in depression levels.
In one Dutch nursing home, a program is running that provides free rent to university students if they neighbor elderly residents. The students volunteer their time with the resident to teach them new skills such as emailing and Skype. There is a similar scheme in Finland too where people under the age of 25 are offered cheap accommodation inside elderly care homes for one year if they give some time to their neighbors. Both these schemes have created mutually beneficial programs for younger and older people to solve issues such as high rent and loneliness.
As we can see, there are many health and wellbeing benefits that social inclusion can bring. With an improved quality of life and a lower reliance on the health system, tackling loneliness should be high on any government’s agenda.