For many people, getting older means giving up many of the things that once gave them a sense of social connection and belonging. Losing a driver’s license in old age is not just about losing one’s independence and ability to get around. It can also mean an end to trips to the gym, ballroom dance socials with friends, weekly visits to church, even short conversations at the grocery store. No wonder, then, that older Americans as a demographic suffer from higher rates of loneliness, which can lead to serious physical and mental health conditions that need treatment.
If loneliness in seniors was already a major health problem, the pandemic made it much worse. It also sparked new efforts to understand what types of supports might help seniors living in more isolated, socially restricted environments. One such effort was by researchers at the University of Cambridge’s School of Medicine. Thanks to their findings, we now have a more robust understanding about what supports can relieve loneliness in seniors. We also have more reasons to be hopeful about the many supports that can help….
Laughter therapy uses different approaches to harness the healing power of laughter, which reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and can reverse the body’s stress response. (Cortisol is linked to many diseases, including major depression, which can be life-threatening and may require inpatient psychiatric care.) Various exercises like games, loudly singing songs, or meditation that focuses on the physical act of belly laughing, are tools that can help release negative emotions and lighten one’s mood.
Robot dogs may be just as helpful as real dogs in combating loneliness, the Cambridge researchers found, citing two studies of robot dogs as evidence in support of their claim. Unlike real dogs that need to be walked, fed, and cared for, the robotic dogs may also be more “feasible” for some seniors living in pandemic conditions, the researchers said. The same might be said of seniors who may not be physically or mentally able to maintain the level of independence and responsibility that a real dog might require.
Visual art therapy can be as informal as hosting a discussion about a painting and asking participants to imagine the story behind it. What inspired it? How and when was it painted? How does it make you feel? What thoughts do you have when you look at it? Apparently, seniors who took part in these group conversations interacting with visual art improved significantly “in loneliness or social support outcomes.”
Indoor gardening that entailed giving residents in a nursing home their own plant to look after, along with some instruction about how to look after their plant, was also effective at relieving loneliness and building social connection. In one sense, this is not surprising: Outdoor gardening reportedly has positive mental health effects, too. Still, something as small and simple as a personal indoor plant helped seniors feel more connected and less isolated.
If a loved one is dealing with loneliness in old age, laughter therapy, robot dogs, visual art therapy, or indoor therapy may be able to help— as one of many supports, in fact, that the Cambridge team found to be effective at relieving social isolation and loneliness in seniors. (For a full list of the researchers’ recommended interventions, see the article “Robotic dogs and laughter therapy: Combating loneliness and isolation while social distancing,” in Science Daily, February 17, 2021.) Pandemic or no pandemic, these new findings may be a source of comfort and encouragement for many families.