Combat Social Isolation in Assisted Care Communities

In our previous post, we highlighted the reasons why socialization is critical for aging adults’ brain health and warding off the symptoms of dementia. Today, we’re going to outline five specific ways in which you can assist your loved one in combating social isolation and loneliness as they age in assisted care or memory care communities.

  1. Help them make new friends

I assumed my grandma would hate assisted living. She loved her independence and did not, at all, want to spend time with all “those old ladies.” At first, she wanted to eat alone; even when sitting with others, she would ignore them. For the first couple months, she spent most of the day in her room, reading, working on crosswords, watching the news, or sewing.

Granted, this was how she spent much of her time before moving to assisted care. And while her physical limitations are what prompted the move, we all hoped that she would meet new people and socially engage in a way that she hadn’t been for the last couple of years.

Soon, she met two wonderful people – Joe & Bella – who decided for my grandma that they would become best friends. And this changed everything. She soon left her room and spent her days in communal areas. She met other residents, some of whom she even liked, and engaged with the caregivers and activity directors. My grandma made friends. She would hold Bella’s hand during movies as they became inseparable. “What a mench!” She used to call Joe.

As a family, we were lucky that this bond formed. But behind the scenes, we played an active role in helping my grandma find friends. We advocated for her. (More on this next.) 

  1. Be their rock, by consistently staying in touch

Especially in the era of Covid that limits (or prevents) visitation, it’s critical that you become even more mindful of doing more than just staying in touch with your loved one.  Calling and checking in is good. Doing this daily is better. Having specific topics ready for your conversation is the best. 

I used to call my grandma, and ask her what’s new. She’d usually say something like, “A little this and that,” setting the stage for a riveting conversation. Soon I came more prepared for the calls. I’d ask specific questions – about her meals, activities, the news or movie she watched the day before. The specifics helped me better learn how she’s doing. I’d find out a little bit more about her appetite, health and even her short-term memory.

But I would also ask her to recall things – her favorite vacation, funny family memories, her pets, her first job – and these questions would spark fun, lively conversations.

One of my good friends’ mom moved to memory care. She waited all day, everyday, for him to visit. He did not do this consistently, leading her to spend hours a day hoping that he might walk about of the elevator. Don’t be like this. Be clear and consistent with your loved one regarding how you will visit or call. If you can only call once or twice a week, make sure they know that – and when you might call. It will lessen their anxiety and provide comfort knowing that your communication is scheduled.

  1. Advocate on their behalf and help make her new residence feel like a family and home

When I was able to visit her before the pandemic, I made sure to make my presence known to the employees. I was on a first-name basis with everyone, from the front desk employee, to the activities directors, to the nursing and caregiving staff, and of course the other residents.

When visiting, I might learn from one of the caregivers that my grandma had a difficult night sleeping, won at bingo, or made a new friend. This “intel” helped when not just evaluating her treatment, but in understanding what she needs for more success.

I learned on one occasion, for example, that she was not socializing much after dinner. She wanted to go straight to her room, even though she wasn’t tired, while the other residents would participate in an activity. We were able to talk about this, and brainstorm on ways in to improve her after-dinner socialization.

There’s one other reason why I felt it important to build relationship with the staff. (Besides that they’re all wonderful, hardworking people!) It helped my grandma better understand that the staff at her community were now part of her family, and that I was part of this community as well. And years later, my grandma will give her caregivers a big kiss on the hand, as if they’ve known each other their entire lives.

  1. Send a gift

It’s weird not being able to physically visit my grandma in her community. Early on the pandemic, I FaceTimed with her on a couple occasions, but these calls did not go so well for us. She was distracted, confused and agitated. She was cooped up and frustrated and couldn’t focus enough to talk. Later on, we were able to do some “drive-by” visits, which went about the same the FaceTime calls. Saddened to see her struggle, and equally frustrated to not be able to be there for her – I wanted to do something – anything – that could make her situation just a little better.

So I sent her a gift.

I actually drove by and dropped off a small care package: a small book of crossword puzzles, (her favorite activity) a book of inspirational poems, a new pair of sunglasses and a few pieces of caramel that she loves. I wrote a note too, reminding her how much I love her, and how much I want to see her once it’s safe to do so.

This package brightened her week, one of the caregivers told me. She kept all the contents with her, making sure other residents saw all her new treats. (She did share a bit with her best friend.) But it reminded her that she has people who love her, even if they can’t come and see her. While she struggled to talk with us on the phone and during the drive-by visit, this was one easy way for her to feel connected and close, even if the distance between us has grown over the last eight months.

In an upcoming blog, we’ll outline a handful of gifting suggestions. While there are plenty of holiday occasions coming up, sometimes the best time to give a gift is when there’s nothing too special going on at all.

  1. Leverage tech

There are a lot of new tech tools and platforms out there to both improve communication with you and your family member who lives in assisted care. I’ve noticed that most residents do not own a cell phone. We made sure my grandma had a phone from day one. Some residents might struggle with being personally responsible for a piece of tech, or how to properly use it. So deciding how tech should be leveraged should be an individualized decision.

We provided my grandma with a phone specifically catered to aging adults – it has big buttons, and not too many of them. We saved all relevant numbers for her, gave her many tutorials and refreshers on how to use it, and spoke with her care team to make sure that they charged it each night.

The phone gave my grandma a bit of independence and feeling of freedom. She would call us (maybe a bit too often when she first moved in) not only to catch up and chat, but also to advocate for herself at the community. We’d get calls updating us about her care, including if her meal was late, or if she was getting bored, giving us the ability to call the community and get her the help she needed.

There are many other tech tools out there, which we will specifically describe in another upcoming blog. But, when evaluating if a product would help improve your loved one’s care, or your communication, make sure you determine if the product would truly meet your goals.

From anti-wandering devices, to video monitoring and innovative medication dispensers, to comprehensive communication hubs and incontinence alerts, there has been a tremendous amount of innovation in this space that makes the experience of aging at home and in assisted living communities easier on the care recipient and the caregivers and family members.
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