According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the United States has a loneliness epidemic, with about fifty percent of Americans adults “experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” That’s a sobering statistic. Even more sobering are the serious physical consequences that can happen because of this lack of connection. From increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia, the results of loneliness are dire, especially for older Americans.
The causes of this epidemic are vast and complicated. From a faster-paced lifestyle to increased reliance on technology to a global pandemic, many older people find themselves isolated for one reason or another.
This news is timely as May is Older Americans Month, an appropriate time to consider some ways we can help our elderly neighbors and fight the loneliness epidemic.
- Introduce yourself. This one seems basic, but take a few minutes to introduce yourself to your elderly neighbors. In addition to exchanging names, make sure to provide your emergency contact information, too. Get their number and use it to periodically check in, especially during our long Minnesota winter. It will also be helpful to get the contact information for their closest friends or family members in case you ever need to get in touch with them.
- Offer assistance with daily tasks. Whether it’s unloading groceries, walking a dog, or shoveling the walk after a big snow, it can mean a lot to your elderly neighbors when you ask to help with tasks that seem small to you but might be big to them. Depending on your level of comfort, you can also ask to help with some bigger tasks like grocery shopping, meal prep, or transportation to and from appointments.
- Listen. Your elderly neighbors are surely a wealth of information and stories. They can probably tell you everything you want to know about the history of your block! Take the time to listen. From a short driveway chat after work to a scheduled visit to drop off some baked goods, take time out of your busy schedule to connect. That will definitely help stave off loneliness and depression.
- Invite them places. Even if it’s just across the street to have a meal with your family, an invitation to connect can go a long way. If your son or daughter has a school concert or sporting event you think your neighbor might enjoy, invite them along! They might say no, but they also might be grateful for the opportunity to get out of their routine for a while.
- Watch for warning signs. If you’re familiar with your neighbor’s routines, then you’ll also notice when something is “off.” Is the newspaper or mail not getting brought inside? Is the car not moving for longer periods of time? Does your neighbor look more unkempt than usual? If you notice any of these warning signs, it’s time to knock on the door. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, then call the non-emergency line for your local police and ask them to do a wellness check.
- Set boundaries and know your resources. There might come a time when your neighbor’s needs are too big for you to handle. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and be clear when you are unable to help with something. After all, you can’t be solely responsible for their health and happiness. Familiarize yourself with local resources that can be helpful for your neighbor, too, like this list of options from the city of Saint Paul. Then you’ll be ready when it’s time for some backup.
None of us will be able to single-handedly eradicate loneliness in our country and amongst our elderly population, but our small efforts can make a big difference in our own communities. Older Americans are a treasure. In spending time with your elderly neighbors, you are helping to preserve that treasure, and you just might learn something, too. As Andy Rooney wisely said, “I’ve learned . . . that the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.”