Why loneliness is the leading cause of death in the elderly

 

Granddad
My Granddad

The archetypal image of the young and old alike, sat around the table to eat together is one that not only endures in my own mind when it comes to the memories of my family, but one that is  woven into the fabric of human history as a whole.

Perhaps then it is of little surprise that the fondest moments I have of my grandfather were those Sunday visits where he came round to eat roast dinner with us. In between bursts of laughter, he’d tell stories of growing up in rural Ireland, yearn of the days of when he worked for the gas board and lament over how my mum always over did the Yorkshire puddings with a playful twinkle in his eye.

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Nonetheless, this carefree, joyful picture I paint of my granddad could change in a heartbeat – and it often did.

You see, he’d be halfway through telling some story or another when,without warning,  he’d suddenly slow down. His eyes would glaze over and fix upon some inconspicuous spot in the room. Rather like how a rumbling old steam train that had just run out of fuel would screech and moan as it slowly comes to a halt .

His voice would then start to waver and a morose expression would etch heavily across his wizened face as he tried to make sense of what was happening to him. His work – worn hands would curl into a fist and tremble as they worked to control themselves, and he’d tug at the collar of the faded, navy blue shirt he had worn for the occasion, as though it were suffocating him from the inside out.

He’d then cradle his walking stick as if it were the only thing in that room, and a look of concern would be shared between my parents, as if they knew what was coming next.

Attempts to make conversation would be acknowledged by a nod or shake of his head, or on particularly bad days- a wall of silence. My granddad would afterwards continue to eat, the occasional croak released from the back of his throat being the only indicator that he was not completely detached from the people who loved him.

Things became even more trying when he refused to even acknowledge the presence of his own grandchildren, giving little more than a cursory glance at a family portrait my little sister had tentatively scribbled in crayon or the briefest of gestures upon hearing the news that I had performed well in some school test or another.

Over time, the only audible sound in the room came from the clunk and thud of cutlery being scraped against half-finished plates, and the tick of the clock emitting from the mantelpiece, as my sister and I slowly counted down the seconds until we could be dismissed from the table and, with much regret, from the man who we adored so much.

The Bigger Picture

It is a sad truth that mental conditions such as depression and anxiety will often go unreported, and as a consequence, untreated in older adults. According to a 2006 survey, 5% of seniors 65 and older reported having current depression, and about 10.5% reported a diagnosis of depression at some point in their lives. Taking into account that the UK population is ageing rapidly, with the number of people aged 65 and over growing by nearly half in the past 30 years, this is just the tip of the iceberg, with who knows how many more are suffering in silence.

grandparents and grandchildren

There are several discernible reasons behind this lack of transparency when it comes to older people and their mental health issues.

First of all, there is the issue of people of this age demographic being unlikely to report any concerns regarding their mental welfare due to the conditions upon which they were raised. Decades before society’s understanding of mental health awareness was as nuanced as it arguably is now, there was little to no understanding of just how important it is to be as healthy mentally as it is to be in optimal physical condition.

Subsequently many older people were likely told by their parents not to bother a doctor unless they had some kind of serious physical ailment. Alas, this is an that persists today, as older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms, such as unexplained fatigue or aches in the body rather than psychiatric complaints.

Unfortunately this kind of attitude towards mental health is something that will become more fortified the older a person gets, thus by the time they are at an age where they are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of mental illness, the damage is already done.

‘Stoicism and resilience are fine qualities, but you get no prizes for mental anguish that could, potentially, be assuaged’

Anne Robinson

Writer and GP of 16 years

This also is not taking into account other influential factors when it comes to older people and their mental health. From issues ranging from such as physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, financial and material abuse to neglect and abandonment, all of these factors can play a role in the mental deterioration of an elderly person.

Unfortunately this can also culminate in alcohol and/or substance abuse, an issue that is more likely to go unrecognised among older people, especially in circumstances whereby the person is retired and perhaps widowed. Chances are that they live by themselves and have few to no visitors for long periods at a time. Thus without a support network of any kind they unfortunately have more opportunity to do harm to themselves.

According to Dr Liz England, mental health lead at the Royal College of General Practitioners, as a society we’ve become fixated on dementia in older adults as the one mental health issue to focus on, and common mental health problems of anxiety and low mood get neglected’.

Looking at the information and figures outlined above, this would seem to be a depressingly accurate hypothesis.

Half middle aged face

 

Putting our Elders first

First and foremost, it is essential that provisions are put in place either by carers, friends or family to ensure that someone in their twilight years is not socially isolated from society. Whether this be through adequate transportation, social activities such as playing bridge , or something as simple as attending a church service once a week; all are fundamental in assuring the peace of mind of the older people in our lives.

After all, nearly three-quarters of the people in an AgeUK survey felt that having more opportunities to connect with other people, such as joining local activity groups, would be a positive thing!

‘There’s an assumption that mental health problems are a ‘normal’ aspect of ageing but most older people don’t develop mental health problems, and they can be helped if they do’

(Source: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/mental-health-later-life)

grandparents dinner

Even the act of eating with others is something that is inherently social and it is suggested that we should encourage seniors to share a meal with others whenever possible, whether it’s with a church group, the local senior center, or a friendly cafe or diner . It is also more likely to promote better nutrition – something which is vital for a healthy way of living especially in older age.

‘Food is […] an occasion for distributing, giving and sharing for the expressing of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers’

Robin Fox

In fact, when you do get the opportunity to see your grandfather or grandmother, then there’s something very easy and simple you can do for them. Namely, try to give them positive comments and/or compliments where you can, as this has been proven to boost the self-esteem of seniors. Similarly, it is wise to discourage them from fretting over their appearance or highlighting the aging process as this may help them avoid becoming self-conscious to the point that they avoid social interactions altogether!

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Nurturing and caring for an animal companion can additionally be quite beneficial for the human mind, as it encourages and motivates elderly people to care for themselves and their pet, even if they don’t particularly feel like doing so!

Pet owners remain engaged socially, have less depression, suffer less loneliness, feel more secure, have more motivation for constructive use of time and require less medication than non-pet owners’ 

Eve Beals

Psychologist

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Final Thoughts

 

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I realise what was happening my now deceased grandfather was out of the ordinary and it was something that prevented me from ever fully sharing a healthy relationship with him.

If I had known then what I know now about mental illness and how it can destroy a person from the inside out, I would have embraced him and never let go.

It was not a character flaw or a desire to inflict worry on his family that turned him into a shell of himself – but a destructive illness that has, does and will continue to inflict itself on people unless we step up to the challenge and protect the older people in our lives to the best of our ability.

So when you next see that special older person in your life, offer them a hug, a warm handshake a smile or whatever it is that gives you and them comfort.

You might just be saving a life.

Useful resources

A Review of Social Isolation by Nicholas Parsons

Depression and Anxiety by Age UK

The Silver Line – ‘Childline for older people’

 

Did you know?

 

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Emotional support helplines:

Samaritans :116 123

Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)

Sane Line:0845 767 8000

Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here

 

 

4 thoughts on “Why loneliness is the leading cause of death in the elderly

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment! It definitely helps encourage me to keep on doing what I’m doing.

      I actually found out a lot of interesting things on the subject of mental illness in the elderly myself upon doing research for this entry! It’s part of the enjoyment of blogging for me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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