Carol Silver Elliott

Being Present

Maybe you know the quote that “90% of life is showing up.”  It’s a sentiment that rings true on so many levels and in so many ways.  And nowhere is that more true than with older adults.  Our elders, whether they live in residential settings or independently, don’t just want that presence, they need it.

Loneliness and social isolation are feelings that are often pervasive in elders and have been demonstrated to be linked to an increased risk of premature death, an increased risk of dementia and increased risks for heart disease, stroke and depression.  (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2020.)

Yet, for many reasons, older adults may not have the interactions and social contacts that they clearly need.  They may be living alone, in a home that they have lived in for many years. The neighbors they knew are gone, their friends are not around and the world has become a very small place.  The elder may not be able to drive and the social activities that they enjoyed are now beyond their reach.  Family members live far away and cannot always be available. The list goes on and, of course, the impact on health, both physical and mental, is significant.

In residential settings, families are often busy with their own lives and children.  They may not be immediately local, making it hard to visit. And, even more so, they may find it a challenge to spend time with a loved one who is changed by disease or cognitive impairment.  Sometimes spending time is not feasible and sometimes it is easier to avoid the visit rather than face the reality.  All the wishing that the loved one would be “who they were” will not change where they are at this point in time.

How can we help older adults and keep loneliness and social isolation at bay?  In residential settings, we work hard to engage people, to connect them with activities that feature both physical and mental stimulation.  Yet we also know that the presence of family is even more powerful than any opportunity we could create.  If distance is an issue, virtual tools can help, fostering a connection over the miles.  If visiting is an option but discomfort exists, there are ways to manage that.  Come and spend time during a program, listening to music together or attending a lecture.  You can even be a part of an exercise class and do some gentle stretching along with your loved one.  Talk with the staff about how to best interact and show both yourself, and your loved one, some grace. This is not easy, there is no question about that.

If your loved one lives in the community, investigate ride services, introduce them to Uber or others.  You can set up a ride service on their phone or you can have them do it through you. Either way, give them back the freedom of movement.  Distant family can use the same technology tools and even find ones that allow you to “drop in” and say hi whenever the mood strikes you.  Understand what activities exist in the community and help to make those connections. And, do things with your loved one, either together or virtually. Some families watch a movie together, using the phone or FaceTime to share reactions and discussions.  You could do the same with a sporting event or a game show or an awards program.

Addressing loneliness is addressing a significant health issue.  It’s not a health concern that can be resolved with traditional medical interventions.  It’s a heath concern that can best be addressed with one kind of treatment—for us to be present.  Just be there.  It matters.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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