Tackling Loneliness in Care Homes

- Written by Ian Walker, International Business Consultant

We have a 3 year old Border Collie. Every few weeks he goes to see elderly residents in a local care home in order for them to pet him. For a short while the residents can enjoy stroking and interacting with him and his visits are very popular. Most of the patients have dementia, and during his last visit, one of the residents was reminded of the dogs he had owned during his life. He went to the window and spent time gazing out, trying to understand where his dogs were and where they could be hiding. Hearing this story, I have been wondering how care homes deal with loneliness in residents with conditions like this.

It is accepted that when speaking to someone with depression, it doesn’t help to simply say ‘Cheer up’ or ‘Just get up and go for a walk in the sunshine!’. These kind of comments seldom work and only highlight a lack of understanding of the condition.

Similarly, when talking about loneliness, it seems easy to say ‘join a club’ or ‘go out and meet new friends’ but that doesn’t address the root causes of loneliness. It also doesn’t take into account how people living in the care environment with conditions such as Alzheimer’s may be suffering with loneliness as a symptom of their disease. While bringing a dog into a care home might provide short term comfort, does it do anything to address chronic emotional loneliness?

While thinking about this, I discovered lots of great initiatives that enrich the lives of residents, ranging from pet visits, bread making, yoga or music therapy. These do have a real and positive impact on social loneliness, where increased social contact with others can help create a feeling of community. Something that is vital to making a care home feel like a home.

‘Emotional loneliness, however goes deeper. It isn’t about just meeting new people’ says Ata Bos. Ata is the founder of Context Care a new company looking to help people assess and manage loneliness. ‘We need to understand where the loneliness comes from. We know that after 2 years of chronic loneliness, people develop feelings of paranoia and conspiracy.’

There is evidence that loneliness may also be a precursor to dementia due to elevated levels of a protein called cortical amyloid. If this is the case, then do we need to pay more attention to people exhibiting symptoms of loneliness in adulthood in order to better detect dementia?

Almost by definition, loneliness may be quite hard to spot in society. People with emotional loneliness might have lots of friends, be outgoing and fun to be around, but these are simply coping strategies for deeper issues. Loneliness can also lead to many other mental health issues such as substance abuse, depression, hoarding or social anxiety.

The question then arises, should we spend more resources on helping to understand loneliness and how it manifests itself in society? Can a better understanding of loneliness lead to a reduction in the number of people ending up in the care environment?

Or are we destined to be spend our last days, feeling lonely and looking out of the window in the hope of seeing our old four legged friends?

Categories: Care homes