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Senior Matters: Social isolation - We can do better
mary kenyon
Mary Kenyon

Crisp fresh air, bluebird skies, wide open spaces, clean flowing waters, mountains and valleys dotted with tufts of color from abundant wildflowers. Is this heaven? For many it is. For others, not so much.

Why so much angst? Where are the shouts of joy and exuberance? Why is there so much sadness? More importantly, why does the Roaring Fork Valley have the dubious distinction of one of the highest suicide rates in the country? Where did we go wrong?

There are more questions than answers when it comes to suicide in mountain rural areas, especially among older adults. The region’s mental health program support has focused on the younger generations in schools, jails and physician referrals for substance (drug and alcohol) abuse. Often, we hear the mindset that we, the older population, have chosen to live in rural settings because we WANT to be isolated. We are more hardy, self reliant and definitely strong-willed. A senior actually remarked to me, “Rely on others for help and you die.” 

Sounds harsh, but what she went on to explain was that if one sits around wanting and waiting for help, one will wither away. There it is, that western, “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” and get on with it, mentality.

I recently asked an assisted living resident why he isn’t doing more to show his family that he is ready to go back home. He responded that he didn’t want to rock the boat. “I am just wasting away and I know it.” 

Sadly, he is, both physically (he has lost over 50 pounds) and mentally (he has stopped doing all the things that made him happy). 

Of course, I reminded him that it was his boat and merely because he had to leave the captain’s quarters for a short while didn’t mean he had to bail. He shrugged. The psychological damage has been done and he succumbed to his current static, isolated condition, not wanting to burden his “heirs” with helping him get better.  

Study results reveal that home-based treatment regimens increase the likeliness of remission from depression, greater quality of life improvements and greater gains in functional and emotional well-being. Convenience to family members was not factored in the study.

So what causes a seemingly “normal” Valley resident to get down this road of insurmountable hopelessness? Loneliness and social isolation are two of the culprits. Loneliness has its roots in emotional wellbeing, so we will leave that discussion for another day. Social isolation, on the other hand, is much more “curable” and clearly distinguishable to those of us who want to help. 

Typically, social isolation is caused by the death of a spouse, family member/caregiver or close friend, impaired mobility, transportation challenges, geography, friends moving away (for their own isolation reasons) and newly moving into our Valley to be closer to family. Obviously, as we age, our social networks, our circle of friends or tribe, grows smaller. I remember my grandmother, at age 94, lamenting that she was the “last one standing,” and was afraid that there would be no one to come to her funeral; we proudly proved her wrong!

Once it was found that social isolation may result in cardiovascular disease risk, it became more “hip” to address. People (and physicians) may now comfortably talk about the physical effects of social isolation without alienating those around them – ironic, don’t you think? Think of it as social stimulation, beneficial to both your brain and body. Studies suggest that the lack of social interaction can affect blood pressure and heighten stress levels. Research has also found resulting increased cholesterol, prompting higher risks of heart attack and stroke in socially isolated men (but not women). 

Many believe that connectivity is the answer. Connection to your community, your peers, your neighbors and those that share common experience or age and interests. Get up, get out. Talk to strangers, make new friends. Be a joiner. Volunteer. Just do something, anything. Want to help? Listen. Listen. Listen. To your friends, neighbors and colleagues. Smile at a stranger (make them wonder what you have been up to). Offer a hand (not a hand-out). Calling, emailing and social media are not enough, although research suggests that it is better than nothing if that is the only option.

Frequency of physical contact, the face-to-face kind, is directly linked to depression with people with in-person visits, one or two times per week, experiencing the lowest rates. Less than once-a-month leads to very high rates of depression. Did we really need a study to figure THAT out?

Another interesting study revealed that older men with lower levels of social connectedness were at greater risk of mortality while those in the group (age 44-77) who increased their circle of friends during the 10-year period or increased their attendance at religious services, were shown as reducing their risk to the tune of 29 percent per year. So let’s get out and make some new friends.

Social media is packed with examples of the pay-it-forward acts of random kindness. Why is this so surprising, aka, newsworthy? It should be the norm; second nature. A veteran pulling over to assist an older woman carrying five–plus grocery bags while walking home aided by a walker. Thank you to the soldier, but how many people had just driven by? An older man who came in to his usual fast-food coffee spot, visibly shaken as he had experienced a flat tire on the way. Thank you to the manager who went out and changed it but again, how many passed him by?  

My favorite is a creation by the local law enforcement agency in a small English town. The police, in an effort to combat loneliness in their community, developed “chat benches.” The sign on the bench reads, “The Happy to Chat Bench: Sit Here If You Don’t Mind Someone Stopping To Say Hello.”  

They reasoned that the kindness of strangers can make a world of difference to those feeling isolated and suffering in silence, which may be alleviated by a simple chat. Brilliant! 

I wondered about the numbers of seniors affected by these feelings in our self-proclaimed bubble and I have to admit, I was stunned. The percent of respondents, over 60 years old, who reported at least a “minor” problem with feeling lonely or isolated was 39 percent in Garfield County, 30 percent in Eagle County and 21 percent in Pitkin County. The numbers were higher for feeling depressed (Community Assessment Survey of Older Population, 2018). Notably, these are the people who were willing to admit it.

Now we know and my feeling is that we can do better. We must try. We can be better listeners. We can seek out our neighbors who have not been out in a while. We can ask total strangers how they are doing today. We can invite folks to lunch at one of the senior meal sites. We can go for a walk. We can sit for a chat. The human need to be connected and the positive results of those connections are well documented. The better news is that it is reciprocal – you will feel just as good, perhaps even better, than those you help. Let’s do this.

Mary Kenyon has worked on the Pitkin County Aging Well Plan initiatives for the past five years and is the new Roaring Fork Director of A Little Help. She is passionate about bringing attention to gaps in needed services in the Mid-Valley. Email her your suggested solutions at mary@alittlehelp.org.