Loneliness is seen by many as one of the largest health concerns we face in the UK — it affects roughly nine million people, with half a million older people going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.
Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which can be caused by leaving the workplace, the death of a spouse, through disability or illness or even from lack of self-esteem.
Everyone deserves friendship and support, but with a generational divide often comes a lack of confidence to approach older people. However, we’re all people at the end of the day, with knowledge, opinions, memories and advice to share, no matter our age.
If you have an older person in your life, whether they’re your friend, relative, neighbour or a stranger you pass in the street, have a go at using these tips to warmly connect with them.
SEE THE WORLD AS THEY DO
Don’t underestimate the power of body language — have you heard of the phrase, “A smile isn’t genuine until the eyes smile too”? While this is excellent advice, age plays an important role in reading body language. This is because our ability to accurately read others is easiest among our peer group but harder with people who are much younger or older than ourselves. Familiarity is a factor, though more important is our ability to relate and empathise. To effectively read body language in an older person, you have to be able to put yourself in their position and see the world as they do.
SHARE A MEANINGFUL CONVERSATION
Forget about talking about the weather or what they had for dinner last night — instead, take the lead and ask genuine questions. What were their hobbies as a child, and what are they now? Have they read any great books lately? Ask them about their favourite holiday. You could even bring along a prop to get the conversation flowing, perhaps today’s newspaper, a photo album or some music that they may enjoy.
And don’t forget that they have a lifetime of wisdom to share, so ask for advice or their opinions on current affairs and other matters. It’s refreshing to hear a more experienced voice.
Once you’re in a conversation, make sure you genuinely listen and respond to their answers. Your questions may change, depending on where the conversation leads, and you never know what amazing stories and thoughts you’ll hear. There’s no need to presume that your older companion needs you to speak slowly, but clear enunciation is great. More importantly, try to subtly assess how they’re reading you and alter your communication style to fit. Give them time to pause and let them finish their own sentences. Simply enjoy the moment — if you’re not in a rush, don’t put out signals that you are — you don’t want to make someone feel that they’re a burden on your time, which can exacerbate the feeling of isolation. Take off your coat, make a cup of tea and get comfortable.
We all like to feel valued, so find a calm environment to talk so that no one feels distracted or overwhelmed. Going back to the all-important body language, this environment will help you to focus on their expressions, words and meanings. Put away your phone if it’s not needed and give them your full attention.
CONSIDER A HOME CARE ASSISTANT
As well as loneliness in later life, many people face mental and physical health concerns too, which can make it difficult to maintain a sense of wellbeing and comfort. However, with the assistance of a home and companion care service, their independence and mobility can be maintained through a variety of tasks.
These tasks aren’t just restricted to duties around the home though — in fact, in-home care assistants will encourage and assist people in their care to maintain social connections and leisure activities, as well as accompany them on shopping trips.
If you’re feeling inspired to warmly connect with older people more, why not volunteer? Studies show that volunteering can improve both your mental and physical health, boost self-esteem and help you become more socially connected.
The Campaign to End Loneliness welcomes anyone who wants to learn or do more about loneliness in later life.
Become a volunteer with Contact the Elderly, a charity that organises free social events.
- You can also get involved with Age UK to provide vital support for older residents.
Author Bio – Robert Hohler is the owner of Companions of London, which introduces families to the best home carers in London. A Companions of London carer is not only a supportive presence but also a friend.