Isolated Elderly Feel ‘Trapped’ in their Own Homes
May 16, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
Half of all older people say the television is their main company according to research by Campaign to End Loneliness.
“Over one million older people in the UK live isolated and lonely lives. A million more feel trapped in their own homes and one in five older people see other people less than once a week. This may be due to having no family, physical disability or living remotely,” say UK charity Friends of the Elderly.
It is therefore unsurprising that the Social Care Institute for Excellence has reported that a number of older people are at risk of depression and other forms of mental distress. While a relatively small number of elderly people attempt suicide, it is thought that this might be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in regards to the existence of under-detected psychological, physical, social and health problems.
Retired nurse Joan Miller*, who previously worked on an elderly care ward in East Glamorgan Hospital, told The Fresh Outlook: “I witnessed depression many times. It would normally run hand in hand with the aging process problems and they were all on medication for the depression. Older people can be more prone to depression because of the loss of their spouse or another loved one in the family, someone they depend on. Bereavement was always a big factor.”
When Ms Miller was asked if she had ever experienced any suicides amongst any of her patients, she said: “Two people spring to mind, they were quite elderly, I would say 80-plus. It was very sad. We had their backgrounds given to us before we actually met the patients. They were both female and they basically wanted to end their life in a dignified manner – i.e. not having to go to a nursing home or maybe to a relative. They felt it wasn’t what they wanted, to be a burden. They chose to try and take their own lives.”
When asked if more can be done to prevent depression in older people being ignored, she said: I don’t know if it is ignored, I think it is maybe not recognised because an elderly person in my experience would do everything they could to hide if they had a problem.”
It can be difficult for those who work with the elderly to spot signs of depression as they often have a large number of patients who may not always alert them to the fact that something is wrong. According to a UK-wide Royal College of Nursing (RCN) survey, almost nine out of 10 NHS community nurses (89%) have seen their case load rise over the last year, while 59% said they were spending less time with their patients.
An article on ‘Ageing and Society’ reported that isolation has also been identified as more common amongst those who are widowed. While the majority of widowed people are women, it has been suggested that isolation can be more extreme for widowed men. However, the relationship between widowhood and loneliness is reported in nearly all studies, some of which have noted that it is more intense in early widowhood, when the loss of an intimate companion is most painful.
Richard Furze, CEO of Friends of the Elderly, told The Fresh Outlook: “The effects of isolation – including loneliness, depression, feelings of low self-worth, poor health and diet – can be devastating, with isolated individuals being less likely to obtain the services they need or seek help. In our ageing society isolation will become more common but we can all play a part in preventing vulnerable people from suffering its consequences. We can all help to end isolation – offering your support for an hour a week sounds like very little, but it can mean the world to an older person.”
Charities like Friends of the Elderly and Contact the Elderly can make a big difference in combating loneliness amongst older people. In 2011, 272 isolated older people received regular friendly phone calls or visits arranged by Friends of the Elderly and 1,052 older people enjoyed a social occasion or group holiday funded by Friends of the Elderly Supporting Friends Service.
Friends of the Elderly say that there are simple steps everyone can take to help reduce isolation among older people: “If you see an older person struggling, for example in the supermarket, ask them if you can help and then stop to have a chat if they want. Don’t forget your own older relatives and friends; try to call or visit them, Stay in touch and regularly check on older neighbors or friends – drop by for a chat.”
Contact the Elderly is a national charity tackling acute loneliness among isolated older people aged 75 and over by organising free monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for small groups of elderly people in local communities across England, Scotland and Wales.
Keith Arscott, chief executive of Contact the Elderly, said: “Research shows that loneliness and social isolation can lead to depression and anxiety. Some of the older people who are referred onto our tea parties do display signs of depression, as a result of being lonely and socially isolated, due to the loss of friends, family dispersal and reduced mobility. Our tea parties make a profound difference to the wellbeing of our older guests, with 86% feeling happier as a result of our service, 86% feeling less lonely and 22% stating they see their doctors less.”
*Names have been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.
By Talia Rose Hughes
[Image courtesy of Sara Yun]