Do you work for a facility that provides care for older adults? If so, you’ve probably seen some of your residents grapple with loneliness. Luckily, by watching for symptoms of social isolation, you can help nip these feelings in the bud.
Whether you’re a facility operator, manager, or hands-on caregiver, you probably got into the business to improve lives. And it’s certainly true that residential care can be rewarding. Unfortunately, it can also be taxing.
When your workday consists of being pulled in a million directions, responding to loneliness may not be your most urgent priority. But it’s critical in the long run.
There’s evidence that loneliness spreads. By reducing the isolation of one resident, you might just help everyone in your facility. The result will be a better place to live and work. Visitors will see this positivity the moment they walk in the door.
So, how can you help residents live fuller, less lonely lives? You can start by recognizing the signs of social isolation.
1) Sudden or rapid talking
For many, the idea that social isolation can occur in a facility full of people may seem odd. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for residents to cut themselves off from those around them. Loneliness often follows.
A 2013 study of Swedish and Finnish residential care homes found that 55% of residents experience loneliness. Think about that.
Sometimes, the people who isolate themselves are the one’s you’d least expect.
It’s surprising, but excessive talking can be a sign that a resident isn’t engaging socially. For example, an older woman who has no interest in speaking with other residents may have occasional verbal outbursts with staff members or family.
Relatives may interpret a verbal outpouring as a good sign. After all, if a loved one has a lot to talk about, surely it’s because she’s keeping busy, right?
Not necessarily. And in most cases, attentive staff can tell the difference.
Many conditions can cause this type of behaviour, and some people are just talkative. But when rapid chattiness is out of character and other social isolation symptoms are present, consider further investigation.
2) Unexpected physical contact
There’s ample evidence to suggest that, as human beings, we need physical contact.
This need partially explains why some residents grab or hold onto the arms of their caregivers. By physically reaching out, a resident may be trying to communicate without words. This behaviour may also be a subconscious attempt to prevent a visitor from leaving.
In short, prolonged touching can be an expression of the loneliness caused by social isolation.
It’s true that conditions that cause mental confusion can play a role in this type of touch. But even when this is the case, loneliness may be a contributing factor.
Of course, an abusive or inappropriate touch is always cause for concern. But if a resident is grabbing or holding onto the arms or hands of staff members, he may simply be lonely.
In these situations, finding new ways to encourage social interaction may help.
3) Nurse call button overuse
Are you a nurse or personal support worker who gets up fed up with nurse call system misuse? Perhaps you’re a facility operator or manager who sees your staff struggling with this problem.
Residents who overuse their nurse call buttons can distract staff from carrying out urgent tasks. These distractions not only contribute to staff burnout, they decrease facility-wide efficiency.
Consider the resident who makes a nurse walk across a facility to pass her a t.v. remote. It’s easy to feel annoyed by this behaviour. But, as most caregivers know, there’s likely an emotional issue at play.
That issue often relates to loneliness. Most residents who become isolated continue to crave relationships. Even those who refuse to participate in social activities may seek out connections with caregivers.
The right nurse call system will help staff understand when situations are truly urgent. They offer an immediate solution.
But in the long term, understanding why certain people use the system too much is crucial. When overuse is a social isolation symptom, a resident’s emotional wellbeing may be at risk.
4) Surprising physical complaints
In a residential care facility, no physical complain should go ignored. Pain and discomfort can be caused by unlikely conditions, so appropriate medical follow-up is best.
That said, aches can’t always be attributed to a physical condition. When this is the case, caregivers sometimes assume that a resident is trying to get attention. There may be truth to this notion.
Nurses and personal support workers (PSWs) should be sensitive to the feelings of loneliness that can cause these complaints. Managers should do what they can to encourage supportive attitudes.
If a complaining resident is thoroughly examined and no explanation for his pain is found, caregivers may want to consider other causes. Take note of his behaviour. Are the complaints he makes to staff his primary form of social interaction?
Depression is also a frequent cause of aches and pains. And when it comes to older adults, physical pain is often the predominant symptom.
Of course, depression can have many causes. But social disconnectedness is a very common factor.
What to do when you recognize social isolation symptoms
It’s one thing to suggest monitoring your residents for signs of loneliness. Doing it is quite another. The truth is, staff won’t always tackle every challenge that comes up during a shift.
That said, you can commit to keeping an eye out for certain behaviour in your residents, whatever your role.
While loneliness is a subjective experience, social isolation is more concrete. Start by looking for symptoms. Then you can further investigate day-to-day behaviour. It will quickly become obvious if a resident only interacts with caregivers.
In some cases, a counsellor can help a resident work through social withdrawal. Family is also important. When relatives are involved, encourage communication on both ends. These connections can have a very strong impact on resident wellbeing.
Relatives can’t always physically visit, but video-chat technology can help fill the gap. There are many cost-effective solutions available. Assess those that are intuitive and built with older users in mind.
Facility-wide changes may benefit many residents at once. Look at shared causes of isolation to find creative solutions.
Let’s say many of the people you care for dislike the recreational activities you provide. Consider alternatives. Are residents nostalgic for a particular activity? What about engaging with young people? For many seniors, staying informed matters.
For those who may crave physical touch or affection, massage therapy and visits with household pets may help.
Whenever possible, resident experience should guide solutions. The result will be a better social environment for all.
For those who live in residential care, the attitudes of management and staff have a big effect. It’s important, even on hectic days, to avoid losing sight of what matters: the wellbeing of your residents.
Feature image courtesy Camilla