Nursing home versus home: most people wouldn’t flinch. Home is where we want to be, and aging in place is the ideal scenario.
Though everyone has moments of loneliness — whether they live alone or in a house full of people — seniors who are aging in place alone may experience it more frequently than others.
Granted for some seniors there are legitimate challenges to leaving home: loss of a driver’s license, problems with incontinence, anxiety, grief, doctor’s orders, and more. As many would rather not burden their family or friends with transport requests, they opt to stay put.
Isolation doesn’t happen overnight, but simple choices (i.e. the mail can wait until tomorrow, I’m too tired to go to the hairdresser, etc.) add up quickly. Before long, the less time a person spends “out and about,” the more difficult it becomes to get out.
The Risks of Solitary Living
It’s important for seniors who live alone to regularly invite friends, neighbors, or family members to join them for a meal (or go to a local restaurant, if possible, for the opportunity to engage socially). Eating alone too often may increase the risk of malnutrition, illness, infections, loss of appetite, or even mental confusion, says this article from A Place for Mom.
Hoarding is another issue that, like isolation, can sneak up on a person gradually. It doesn’t take long before a few days of unopened, unsorted mail transforms into a heap of paper, or a few days of unwashed dishes or unemptied trash begins to smell, collect mold, or attract bugs. Again, the longer things are left undone, the harder it is to DO them, no matter how urgent the need.
The presence of mobility issues increases the risk of falling or sustaining an injury while trying to navigate through the house. Lifeline systems and medical alert bracelets are lifesaving tools that should be utilized by all seniors who live alone (regardless of mobility concerns).
Tips for Preventing Injuries
If you or someone you know is currently (or soon to be) aging in place alone, help them do so successfully. Consider these suggestions for creating a safe environment:
- Make sure your home is barrier-free. Stay ahead of the hoarding curve by removing clutter throughout the home: in closets, in drawers, in cabinets, on tabletops, and infrequently used rooms. Then, clear paths for smoother, safer travels (whether by walking or power scooter); move/rearrange bulky furniture and remove trip hazards, like lamp cords and high-pile rugs.
- Can you get in and out of the house with ease? If the answer is no, ramps or vertical lifts may be a worthwhile investment. 101 Mobility® offers a number of options; check them out here.
- If you travel outside the home, plan ahead. If you use a cane or walker, don’t leave it behind. Auto ramps and car lifts are practical solutions for seniors who want to leave the house on a regular basis. Check out our article on driving safety tips and car modifications to ease your travel woes and worries.
- Is the bathroom safe? A majority of injuries and falls among home-bound seniors take place in the bathroom. Integrating non-slip surfaces and barrier-free baths, tubs, showers, and other safety bath equipment, such as grab bars, make the bathroom less of a hazard.
- Modify the home to better support aging in place. Widen hallways to accommodate a power scooter or power chair. Install countertops with rounded edges. Put lever-style handles on all doors. There are a number of things you can do to make the home mobility-friendly. Learn more here.
(NOTE: Many of these modifications can be expensive. Read our post, “Where the Heart Is: How to Pay for Home Modifications” for grants, loans, and other available payment options.
Tips for Preventing Social Isolation
Be proactive against isolation or loneliness with these practical tips:
- Set a routine; establish boundaries. Keep up with regularly scheduled appointments as much as possible. If getting together with friends or family happened sporadically before, make an effort to be more consistent about meeting now. You can say no to a dinner invite or a neighbor’s offer to drive you to the store on occasion, but don’t make it a habit.
- Go outside. Unless you are physically limited to staying inside the home, try to get out — even just for a brief walk or to read a magazine on the porch — at least once a week.
- Know your community resources. Visit or call your local AAA (Area Agency on Aging) office to find out about public transportation options, Meals on Wheels programs, nearby senior centers (most serve hot meals and provide daily activities), and other community-based support services.
- Have people over. Can’t leave home but want company? Invite friends, family, or neighbors for lunch, or to watch a favorite TV program together.
- Stay connected. Skype, online forums, Facebook, email, and the good old-fashioned phone or letter: there are plenty of options for staying in touch from right where you are (you can even have stamps delivered directly to your mailbox).
- Hire a companion. Most home care agencies offer companion services. Companions can help with errands and housework, assist with bill paying and letter writing, provide transportation to appointments, or simply come to visit and chat.
- Hire a housekeeper. Maybe your Mom doesn’t need company, but she’s overwhelmed by housework. Bring in a cleaning service once a month, once a week — however often the services would be helpful — and prevent the home from becoming unsanitary or unsafe due to clutter.
- Consider a roommate or pet. Use your best judgment here, but sometimes there is just no replacement for human companionship. Though a pet may be more work than help, a roommate (perhaps a friend who recently lost her spouse, or a grandchild who just moved back home after college) might be a desirable solution — and one that often benefits both parties.
– Michelle Seitzer