In recent years, there has been an increased focus on mental health as part of the agenda to promote well-being. As research into this area has expanded, there has been a growing awareness of the negative effects, both mentally and physically, of loneliness.
Concerns have focused on people living alone, especially the elderly, many of whom receive few visits and find it difficult to leave their home. However, there is now a growing appreciation that loneliness isn’t always associated with physical isolation and that it is quite possible for someone with many human contacts to feel equally lonely.
One such example of this can be found through the experiences of a significant number of residents in care homes. Researchers in Europe and the U.S. have found that up to 55% of elderly residents in care homes have regular feelings of loneliness. In this country, Age UK revealed that 60% of people in care homes receive no visits, which is undoubtedly a contributory factor.
As the experience of elderly residents in care homes has come under the spot light, questions have been asked both about past practice and future direction. Concerns have been raised about the level of social interaction stimulated by some of the traditional activities organised by residential care homes.
It has been suggested that a staple diet of social activities based around outside entertainers performing to residents does little to enhance social interaction between residents or counter feelings of loneliness. Equally, warnings have been sounded about the potential pitfalls of new “super homes” and retirement “communities” in cocooning residents in an artificial world and excluding them from the many benefits of strong links with the outside world. However, neither outside entertainers nor retirement communities need be negative factors if there is an appropriate awareness on the part of staff of the causes of loneliness and of some of the successful and tried strategies for alleviating it and a willingness to risk and embrace innovation.
Causes of Loneliness
One of the key factors contributing to feelings of loneliness is a separation from the familiar. This separation can be from people, places or activities and collectively often contributes to a sense of identity loss. The problem is exacerbated when care home residents see little or nothing of old friends and family.
It is also possible for residents to feel isolated within a care home if the nurses and carers are too busy to provide time for chatting. However, while some residents feel starved of attention and meaningful activity, other residents choose to isolate themselves from activities within the care home.
Boredom is another trigger for loneliness, especially if the resident has left behind a reasonably active life in their previous community. The transition from an independent, active life to one of dependence can happen overnight with a fall leading to hospital admission. More commonly, however, admissions to care homes follow an elderly person’s deteriorating capability to see, hear, move, think and remember and for these people the process of isolation may have already begun before their admission to a care home. For these people the ability and the motivation to befriend others may have already been seriously compromised.
Bereavement often leads to feelings of loneliness whether it be a spouse, friend or another resident in the care home with whom a friendship had begun. Research has shown that levels of loneliness rise with age and that men are more likely than women to suffer from intense experiences of emotional loneliness due to the loss of a spouse.
The Impact on Health of Loneliness
Loneliness can significantly affect a person’s sleep, meaning that it is less restorative, both physically and mentally. It also creates psychological problems for the person, whose symptoms may include a hyper-reaction to negative behaviour in others, potentially deepening their sense of loneliness.
Research has also explored links between feelings of loneliness and the development of dementia caused by the release cortisol. A Dutch investigation in 2012 suggested that feelings of loneliness increased the chances of developing dementia by 64%.
Overall, there seems little doubt that loneliness has a very negative impact on the general well-being of people and needs to be addressed in order to improve their long-term quality of life. Not only that, but the implication for doing so in order to reduce healthcare costs appears obvious.
Initiatives to Combat Loneliness in Care Homes
As there has become an increased awareness of the value of combatting loneliness in care homes, initiatives have sprung up all over the country.
Projects involving hobbies that have been introduced into care homes include growing food in pots, the creation of allotments that could also be shared with local schools and keeping chickens, which has proved a popular import from Australia and comes with the added benefit of free eggs. Rabbits or guinea pigs might be a suitable alternative. Traditional hobbies can be delivered through clubs and a whole variety have been introduced into care homes with the aid of outside facilitators, including choirs, film clubs, exercise and dancing.
Other possibilities include introducing evening classes at the care home. These could also be extended to the wider community to raise the profile of the home and to allow regular interaction between residents and outside visitors.
One residential home in the Netherlands offered free accommodation to six students in exchange for a minimum of 30hrs spent with residents a month. The scheme was a great success with students far exceeding the 30hrs and reporting that they had gained much from the experience.
It is not only people that are arriving at care homes to draw residents away from their solitude, but animals too. There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence that the interaction between residents and animals lifts morale and is generally therapeutic. The list of animals involved extends beyond the expected cats and dogs to donkeys and alpacas, which are trained to travel in lifts and can visit individual residential rooms. Also included in the visiting animals have been birds of prey, rats, scorpions, giant snails and water dragons!
Physical and mental well-being are often linked and therefore activities delivering improved health and fitness are a valuable asset to a care home. Such activities introduced into care homes include Chair Aerobics, Tai Chi, Yoga, Movement to Music, strength and balance classes to reduce falls and maintain independence, flexibility and mobility classes to manage degenerative conditions together with team games such as indoor curling. Together with a long list of potential physical health benefits, these activities can relieve boredom and reduce stress.
Monitoring and Record-keeping with CareDocs
Care home software is likely to play an increasingly important role in care homes, helping manage and record these extra activities and initiatives that can combat loneliness in care homes.
It is vitally important that staff are trained to recognise when a resident is becoming lonely and have strategies at their disposal to address the problem. Tracking the mental and physical well-being of residents is a challenge in the busy, and at times inevitably chaotic, environment of a care home and it is in this area that the application of software that can be employed to regularly monitor what is happening to each resident.
This information should inform the individual plan of each resident, which in turn should be regularly reviewed to identify any deterioration in morale as well as physical health.
To learn about how CareDocs could help achieve this, simply get in touch and our friendly team will help you get started with the very best care home software.