The latest research impacting senior care programming examines the important distinction between social isolation and loneliness - there is a qualitative difference between these two psychological phenomena. Isolation refers to physical distance while loneliness refers to perceived, or felt, distance (Petersen, et al., 2016).
Unfortunately, many activity programs that only address isolation often fail to address the perceived loneliness of residents - when left unaddressed, the risk of depression and/or anxiety increases dramatically.
Understanding loneliness and relationships. Quality of life is improved when the quality of one's relationships is strong. Sadly, loneliness has become an epidemic in the aging population because the quality of the elderly's relationships is too often reduced to task-based interactions with care staff.
Many senior care organizations are now searching for ways to provide relationship-focused care.
Research shows that engaged caregiving relationships can improve quality of life and even affect health outcomes (blood pressure, cholesterol levels, depression, anxiety, etc.). In fact, individuals over the age of 80 with at least five high-quality relationships live seven years longer on average than those with fewer than five high-quality relationships (Beliveau, 2013).
What can your organization do? While it is necessary for senior care organizations to address social isolation for residents by offering activity-based programming, these efforts will fall short of impacting quality of life if they do not also focus on increasing the quality of caregiver-client relationships.
Considerations for addressing loneliness:
1. Build Relationships. Provide opportunities for staff and residents/clients to get to know each other on a deeper level - remind staff their job is build a relationship with each resident. Formalizing this practice shows staff, families, and residents that you value a culture of relationship building.
2. Develop Relational Skills in Staff. Developing high-quality relationships with residents and clients should be your staff's primary focus. The health and human services industry should train in relational and psychological care just as much as it trains in physical care. Train staff on basic relationship skills such as mirroring, active listening, reflecting, and advanced empathy. Evaluate training programs by how well they teach these basic skills.
3. Measure. Loneliness is a subjective state, thus it will vary for each person. Measure residents' psychological well-being by conducting one-on-one interviews, asking questions like "how connected do you feel with your caregivers?" Additionally, observe staff interactions with residents, look for eye-contact, positive non-verbal cues, and level of communication. This data will inform necessary and appropriate interventions and also provide a gauge of program effectiveness.