Focus on mental health has increased greatly in response to various campaigns promoting wellbeing over the last few years. Research into this area has grown massively, bringing with it a wider awareness of the negative mental and physical effects of loneliness. People living alone and especially the elderly, are among the most vulnerable. Many of whom receive few visits and find it difficult to leave their home. However, there’s now a public appreciation that loneliness isn’t always associated with physical isolation and that it’s entirely possible for someone with many human contacts to feel equally lonely.
Unfortunately these feelings are true for 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. Age UK, the UK’s leading charity for elderly people, revealed that 60% of people in care homes typically receive no visitors.
As the experience of elderly residents in care homes has come under the spotlight, questions and concerns have been raised about past practice and future direction. A big discussion point revolves around whether traditional activities organised by residential care homes involve sufficient levels of social interaction and mental stimulation.
Causes of Loneliness
One of the key factors contributing to feelings of loneliness is a separation from the familiar. This can stem from not seeing people, places or doing activities, and collectively can lead to a sense of identity loss. The problem is exacerbated when care home residents see little or nothing of friends and family.
It’s also possible for residents to feel isolated within a care home if the nurses and carers are too busy to provide time for small talk and catching up. However, while some residents feel starved of attention and meaningful activity, other residents may choose to intentionally isolate themselves, either because they aren’t finding their experience fulfilling or because there is a chance they just aren’t a people-person. Creating a comprehensive care plan and monitoring their behaviour over a period of time will give you a better idea of how emotions and attitudes change toward certain activities.
Boredom is another trigger for loneliness, especially if the resident has left behind a reasonably active lifestyle in their previous community. The transition from an independent, active life to one of dependence can happen overnight, for example, with a fall leading to hospital admission. However, it’s more common that admissions to care homes follow an elderly person’s deteriorating capability to see, hear, move, think and remember. Potentially, for some of these people the process of isolation may have already started prior to joining a care home, due to lack of confidence affecting their motivation to befriend others.
Bereavement naturally often leads to feelings of loneliness and depression whether it be a loss of spouse, friend or another resident in the care home with whom a friendship had begun. Research has shown that loneliness levels rise with age and that men are more likely to suffer from intense experiences of emotional loneliness due to the loss of a spouse.
How Loneliness Impacts Health
Loneliness can significantly affect a person’s sleep, meaning that it’s less restorative, both physically and mentally. It also creates psychological problems for the person, leading them to withdraw in certain social situations and deepening their sense of isolation. Depression is another mental health problem that can easily develop from lack of sleep and isolation, as well as loneliness.
Research has also explored links between feelings of loneliness and the development of dementia caused by the release cortisol. Various studies have suggested that feelings of loneliness greatly increased the chances of developing dementia.
Overall, the negative effects that loneliness has on general well-being is clear, and needs to be addressed as soon as possible to improve long-term quality of life. Catching it early can also reduce healthcare costs over a long period of time.
Tackling Loneliness in Care Homes
As there has become an increased awareness of the value of combating loneliness in care homes, initiatives have sprung up all over the country.
Projects involving simple, day-to-day hobbies have been introduced into care homes including gardening and growing produce, 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. 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, or other forms of alternative and complementary therapy like group painting sessions. 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 30 hours of time spent with residents per month. The scheme was a great success with students far exceeding their minimum time, and reporting that they had gained much from the experience.
It’s not only human visitors going to care homes to engage with residents, but animals too. There’s 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. Click here to read our guide on Pet Therapy.
Physical and mental wellbeing are often linked and therefore activities delivering improved health and fitness are a valuable asset to a care home. Examples of 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.
Whatever activities you opt for, be sure that they are stimulating, rewarding and enjoyable. An activity that people don’t want to get involved with not only adversely affects mental health, it’s a waste of time, energy and resources. This is why it’s important to regularly check-in with your residents and get them involved with decisions relating to their care. A person-centred care plan will also help you understand likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and help you provide a service better catered to the individuals who rely on you.
Monitoring and Record-keeping with CareDocs
Care home software continues to play an increasingly important role in care homes, helping manage and record these extra activities and initiatives that can combat loneliness.
It’s 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 wellbeing of residents is a challenge in the busy, and at times unpredictable, care home environment. It’s in this area that the application of software can be employed to regularly monitor what is happening to each resident, physically and emotionally.
This information should inspire the individual care 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.