Living in Central Indiana, we are fortunate to be part of a compassionate community. Families, friends, and volunteers are always eager to assist others. But even the most caring people can feel unsure about how to help someone coping with chronic or terminal illness – no one wants to do or say the wrong thing when approaching a patient or their loved ones.
The Loneliness Trap
Aging seniors, people of any age living with a long-term illness (e.g. cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, etc.), and their caregivers are particularly susceptible to feelings of isolation and depression. And feeling lonely makes existing health issues more difficult to manage. Research shows loneliness can reduce the ability to perform daily activities, like bathing, grooming, and preparing meals.
But everyone can relate to what it’s like to feel lonely. By focusing on our common need for social interactions, it becomes easier to connect with someone who needs support. And cheering up a lonely person can make you feel better, too!
Easy Ways to Share Some Cheer
As Hoosiers caring for Hoosiers, we’ve put together 7 easy tips for how you can bring happiness to someone struggling with loneliness due to health issues or family issues or even the natural course of aging. Most of these ideas work equally well whether you are cheering up someone close to you or sharing your joy with someone who does not have a strong social network of their own.
Drop in for a visit.
The best cure for loneliness is company, and even short visits have big impacts. A face to face chat is a perfect time to listen and learn about stories from the past. Be prepared with a specific prompt like “Tell me what Uncle Bill was like when you were growing up” or “How did you celebrate 4th of July when you were younger” to start the conversation. Seeing someone take a genuine interest helps lonely seniors and isolated caregivers feel more connected. Make sure to focus on what they are saying rather than thinking ahead to your own responses. And be prepared to share your own story when it’s your turn.
Bring a child or a pet.
Kids and animals are a source of joy to many people, and they provide a natural focus to a visit. Young children are excited to have a fresh audience for almost anything, while older children may have fun activities to discuss – whatever the case, the energy of youth tends to be cheerfully contagious. Also, studies have shown pets can reduce loneliness, and interacting with a furry friend helps people to relax. While formal pet therapy helps patients achieve specific goals, an informal visit from an animal can benefit anyone who is lonely. For people who have had pets during their lives, such visits often trigger memories that promote conversation and a sense of connection.
Connect with a phone call.
If a visit is not practical, just pick up the phone to check in with a friend or family member. Hearing a familiar voice can combat loneliness, so it’s important to let people know you are thinking about them – especially when chronic illness or caring for an ailing loved one has left them isolated. A call is an easy way to ask how someone is doing and share a bit about your own day. You can also give updates on grandchildren or shared acquaintances to help someone feel more included. And with Facetime or similar video functions, you may even get to connect “face to face” over the phone.
Share a meal or “cuppa.”
Eating together is a regular social ritual – researchers found the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. So, sharing a meal is a natural way to cheer up a lonely someone. Bringing lunch to someone who is homebound or inviting a lonely neighbor over for coffee or tea lets you connect around the table. Beyond the social benefits, someone who has difficulty preparing their own meals will appreciate having one less mealtime to worry about. Alternatively, you can share a pot or a pitcher of something to drink and a nice chat at any time of day to chase away loneliness.
Send a card or small gift.
A cheery card and handwritten note lets someone know you care. Try including personal details to create a genuine connection. You may want to print to make your writing easier to read for aging loved ones or attendants who may be reading to them. Physical reminders of their happy times, including photos or small souvenirs, can also make a lonely person smile. When connecting with seniors, find items that link to older memories (from childhood or young adult years) as those memories are retained the longest – even in patients with dementia. A favorite sweet treat or bright flowers are also a good way to show someone you are thinking of them.
Play, sing, or “dance.”
Activities provide structure to social interactions and set a recreational tone. When you play cards or work together on a puzzle, the shared sense of purpose helps combat loneliness. Music is another proven way for people to connect with favorite memories and with each other. Ask someone about their favorite music, and find free recordings online that you can both sing along with or even dance to. For folks with mobility or balance issues, even swaying in their seat or tapping a hand to a well-loved song can create an atmosphere of fun. Choose activities that are appropriate for the lonely person’s age (not child-themed) and attention span to keep the interaction comfortable.
7. Offer a warm hand and a smile.
There are many health benefits associated with human touch that counteract the negative impact of loneliness. But people who spend a lot of time alone – including seniors and chronically ill patients – do not get much physical contact. Giving someone a gentle hug or placing your hand on their hand is a great way to help them. And a genuine smile is like an invitation – even seeing a smile from a stranger can help people feel more socially connected.
Connecting Helps Heal
We know that loneliness is harmful to health. Everyone needs to feel like they are part of a community, and aging seniors, patients with chronic illnesses, and family caregivers are the most vulnerable to feelings of isolation. But by taking a little time out of your day, you can spread cheer to someone who needs it and enjoy a connection that will benefit your own health, too!