Saturday, October 17, 2020

Stay Connected if You Live Alone - It Could Save Your Life

The retirement community where I live contains over 12,000 condominiums, and only one person lives in approximately half of them.  As a result, we occasionally hear about people who have died alone, and their death was not discovered for a day or longer.  In a few instances, people have gone missing, but no one realized it until days had passed and a friend or neighbor checked on them.
 
In addition to these risks, living alone has been shown to decrease your lifespan, as well as the quality of the final years of your life, often because the person becomes isolated and fails to reach out and contact other people. Loneliness is a dementia risk.  People who live alone often have a poorer diet and are less likely to maintain their personal hygiene. They may be slower to get to a hospital if they are showing signs of a heart attack or stroke. They rarely recognize their own dementia symptoms.  It is dangerous for many reasons.  
 
I recently heard about a woman who fell in her home and it was days before anyone found her. She was dehydrated and extremely weak before she was discovered, but she did survive. Doctors said that she would probably have died if she had laid there much longer.  Being alone too much puts your life at risk.
 
Loneliness is even more important during situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic.  Many senior citizens, unable to visit with friends, neighbors, and family, have become more isolated than ever before.  If they have a dangerous preexisting condition, such as diabetes, asthma or chronic kidney disease, they are usually taking extreme precautions to avoid seeing other people.  This could protect them from Covid-19, but put them at risk in other ways. 
 
If you are one of the millions of retirees who live alone, how can you stay connected to other people?  How can make sure that someone is looking out for you?  How can you maintain your relationships and build new ones?

Check in with someone every day - In the past, it was recommended that someone should call the elderly members of their family every day.  However, at a time when the younger generations are often overwhelmed with their jobs and children, making phone calls to an aging parent day-after-day, year-after-year, can become an overwhelming task.  Today, there are other ways to make sure everyone in your family is doing OK.  
 
If you are living alone, ask a friend, neighbor or relative to connect with you briefly every day.  The two of you could quickly touch base in one of these ways:
 
Send each other a quick daily text message in the morning, and wait for a response.  It can be as simple as saying, "I'm up this morning."  They could respond with an easy "thumbs up." 

Some people make a point of opening their blinds in the morning and closing them in the evening.  This allows concerned neighbors to know they are are alive and well.  Such a simple action, especially when you know a neighbor is watching out for you, can be life saving.
 
You could also post something daily on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.  It could be a picture you took during a morning walk, a photo of a cake you baked, or your opinion about something interesting.  It is an easy way to let everyone in your circle of friends know you are alive, active online, and functioning mentally.  Because these posts go out to many of your friends and family, a number of family members and friends can be reassured at the same time that you are OK.  This is especially helpful if you have been ill.
 
If you are going to be out-of-touch and off-line for a while, let everyone know privately, so your family and friends do not worry.  You will want to do this discreetly, or to a limited number of people, so you do not return to a burglarized home. You could create a small "close friend's group" on Facebook, and only a small group of people will see your message. You can also create a small text message group, which will allow you to notify a few friends at once. It is important you do something like this if you are traveling, spending time in the hospital, or otherwise unlikely to be online, so your close friends do not worry about you. 
 
If you are hospitalized in an emergency, be sure to ask a friend or relative to let others know, or ask someone to subtly mention it online, and tag you, so it appears on your Facebook news feed. They could say something vague, but reassuring, such as "Helen will be off-line for a few days, but she is doing fine." Or, ask someone in your text group to send a message to the others. Otherwise, a caring friend may send the police to do a wellness check at your home!
 
Get a medical alert device - You have seen the ads with the person on the floor saying, "I fell and I can't get up!"  This is more common than you may realize. One in four people over the age of 65 falls every year.  Anyone over the age of 70 who lives alone should consider getting a medical alert device. (Ad)  Many assisted living facilities require their residents to wear a medical alert device at all times.  You can purchase your own at a very low cost, with a small monthly service fee.  Then, if you are having a medical emergency either at home or while out of the house, you can simply push a button on a necklace, bracelet or key chain and an operator will answer. There are a variety of medical alert devices (Ad) available, and you will want to check out your options. When you activate the device and contact the service in an emergency, the operator will ask you over the device's speaker whether you want an ambulance, the police, or need them to call a designated friend, relative or neighbor.  They will then place the appropriate call and get you the help you need. In many cases, the operator will stay on the line until they are sure you have been helped. These devices can reassure your family that you are never unable to get assistance the minute you need it.  It could save your life. 


Make an effort to see people
- It can feel so comfy, cozy and safe in your own home, you may avoid getting out and seeing people.  This is especially true today when it is so easy to have everything from your groceries to your clothing delivered directly to your door.  Why leave your home when it can be tiring and feel unsafe?  However, it is absolutely essential that nearly everyone makes an effort to get out and see others, when they can, and feel safe doing so.  It can be as simple as waving to a neighbor and chatting from 10 or 15 feet away.  You may also want to find a friend that you feel safe seeing, such as a neighbor who also lives alone.  Perhaps you can take a walk together, or sit outside and have a cocktail in the evening.  It is nice to know that someone would immediately notice if you did not show up for a planned walk or chat.
 
Having conversations with other people is an essential part of avoiding dementia.  When you are with other people, you pick up on non-verbal communications, such as facial expressions. You also never know what the other person will say, which means you have to be ready to respond quickly to new information.  Interacting with other people is the very best type of brain stimulation.  Even if you have to maintain a safe distance and wear face masks, it is important to occasionally interact with other people in-person.  At the very least, during the pandemic you should regularly interact using Zoom, Facetime, or similar sites.

Get involved in your community - This can mean taking classes, volunteering, attending a place of worship, or joining clubs.  The advantage of these activities is that they will keep you busy, keep your mind active, and help you build a group of people who care about you and who will worry if you stop showing up.  You will make friends with people who have similar interests.  You will learn to care about them and watch out for any unexpected changes in their lives.  This is the basis for seniors helping seniors.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, many charities and political organizations offer ways to help them virtually by making phone calls, doing fund-raising, writing postcards, sending text messages or promoting them in other ways.
 
Being active in the community is especially important for people who do not have adult children or other close relatives who are watching out for them.  You need to find your own group of friends, neighbors, club members, church members and others who will watch out for you. 
 
If you are not able to go to in-person meetings, you can find groups that have Zoom meetings through Meet-up.  They even offer meetings in foreign languages, if you want to practice your Spanish, French, German or another language.  You can also sign up for fun discussion groups through a local community college. One couple I know takes a "Film as Literature" class through an Emeritus program offered for senior citizens by a local community college. They watch Netflix movies, and then participate in a weekly Zoom discussion meeting, where they talk about the movie.  Whatever interests you, you should be able to find an online class or discussion group which will be fun and interesting for you.

Local senior centers will reopen after the quarantine ends - Although you may not be able to visit them during the pandemic, eventually senior centers will reopen again. They are located across the United States.  They offer wellness programs, exercise classes, useful information, assistance with common problems, and other services.  Some of them even offer low-cost daily lunches, which are a wonderful way to get to know other people in your area.  They also offer social events and field trips to local places of interest.  It is a fun way to find friends who are interested in attending plays, museums and concerts. You could also volunteer at the senior center, which can be a lot of fun.  The more effort you put into spending time there, the more benefit will get out of your local senior center.

Host a social event in your home, once people begin to get together again. - If you want to get to know your neighbors or club members better, there is no better way to do this than to hold a social event in your home.  I have hosted annual block parties at every home where I have lived since my husband and I were in our 20s.  As a result, I still stay in touch with old neighbors from places where I have not lived in decades.  I have never regretted hosting these occasional events. Depending on what is easiest, you can invite a group over for morning coffee, lunch, dinner or evening cocktails.  A potluck dinner is fine, if you do not want to provide all the food, or if you know that some of your guests have allergies or may prefer different types of food from what you plan to serve.  You do not have to do it often, but try to entertain a small group at least once or twice a year.  You will get to know your neighbors better at an informal social event.  A few of them will reciprocate by inviting you to their social events. You will go from being acquaintances to becoming friends.  This actually keeps you safer, because people are more likely to look after neighbors they know and consider friends.

Stay in touch with people - Perhaps the most important thing you can get out of the above activities is building a large support group of people.  However, they will quickly fade away if you do not stay in touch.  It is not enough to attend a concert with a friend and then never see that person again.  You have to nurture these relationships. You have to take the lead.  Do not wait for someone else to do it. Do more than your "fair share" in the relationship. 
 
Send out holiday cards with a little update about what has been going on in your life.  Buy birthday cards and cards for other celebrations at the dollar store, and send them out when appropriate.  Ask people to go out for coffee with you, especially before or after a meeting, or whenever you want to discuss the plans for a volunteer event.  In other words, do not wait for people to contact you.  Reach out to them and do it as often as possible to maintain that relationship.  Show an interest in their lives, their celebrations, their worries.  Ask about their children, grandchildren and pets. If you do all that, you will have friends for life, you will stay mentally alert, and you may even live longer!

Share contact information with several friends - If your nearest family member lives in another state, it is wise to share their contact information with several of your friends and/or neighbors. Then, if something should happen to you, your friends and neighbors will know who to contact.  Nothing can be more frustrating than to realize that a friend of yours has had an accident or serious medical event, and you do not know how to contact their adult children, siblings or other relatives.  It is thoughtful to share this information with a small circle of friends.  You should also let your out-of-town relatives know about the friends who have their contact information and would contact them in an emergency.  Then, if they receive a call from a stranger, they will know that you gave them the information.  
 
The most important thing you can learn from this is that you are never too old to make new friends, get involved in new activities, and nurture your relationships.  In fact, it is important that you do these things your entire life.

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