Even for elders blessed with a large family providing regular support, peer to peer socialization is a critical aspect of senior health that many people overlook.
“Seniors living alone often struggle with depression,” said Deborah Elliott, longtime marketing consultant in the senior living industry. “We see this often when a spouse dies, and the isolation brought about by Covid did not help our aging parents feel connected if they were living at home alone.”
Senior living communities provide an opportunity for regular social interaction, as much or as little as seniors decide they want and need.
Elliott remembers a prospective resident who was in post-acute care at Robison Jewish Health Center after a significant cardiac event and was ready for discharge. She was advised not to go home by herself, and her family wanted her to have access to medical care around the clock, treatment they could not provide.
“She had a great big family, all living in the Portland area, really supportive, and they all brought her over to Rose Schnitzer Manor to meet with me,” said Elliott. “And after our tour, the mom said to me privately that she was not moving in. She said she’d stay for a month or two, and then she was going home.
“So, we made that ‘the plan.’ I told her she could drive the bus, so to speak, and make the decision regarding how long to stay with us. As long as the healthcare team was confident about her returning home to live on her own after a month or so, she could do so.
“The family did a great job decorating her apartment to make it feel like home and I saw her almost every day,” added Elliott.
“After a couple of months, I found her in the art studio painting. I reminded her that she had been with us for more than two months, and asked what happened to her going home.
“She looked at me and said, “I know. I really like it here. Is it okay if I stay?
“It reminded me that even though the resident had the support she needed from the health services team and her family, what was essential for her mental and emotional and spiritual well-being were the relationships that she forged while she was in assisted living.
“She was so busy meeting and helping others, that her kids couldn’t get her on the phone, which is exactly what they had wanted for her because she had been isolated and alone before her heart event.”
The lesson, said Elliott, is that elders need regular socialization with their peers, beyond the love and support of family or caregivers. Elders who have experienced the recent loss of a partner or friend, are especially susceptible to depression. Other signs of intense sadness that may need medical intervention include feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.
The need for socialization is one key indicator for seniors when they and their families are determining whether it’s time to move to assisted living.
Late-life depression affects about six million Americans ages 65 and older, according to WebMD, but only 10 percent receive treatment.
“Even in the most loving and attentive family, seniors can feel adrift and lonely if they do not have access to people their own age to whom they can relate and connect with day to day,” said Elliott. “It’s important to remember that depression in older people can be overlooked when dealing with the effects of many illnesses, disabilities, and medications.
“It’s important to be watchful of a sadness that lasts longer than usual, and to seek medical help if there are any doubts.”