Overcoming loneliness


Feeling lonely? You’re not alone. According to the Administration of Aging, one out of eight Americans is over 65. Of those over 65, 28 percent live alone and 46 percent of them are women. In a 2009 Pew Research report, one out of six Americans over 65 described their lives as lonely.

From these statistics, loneliness among seniors seems to be an experience shared by many. A senior’s lack of contact with family and friends can be caused by a variety of reasons, including lack of networking, health conditions, mental illnesses and travel limitations. Being alone during holidays such as Chanukah and Thanksgiving can put an even bigger damper on a senior’s well-being.

Lack of social contact is an obvious cause of loneliness, which can also be harmful to a senior’s body, both physically and mentally. Melanie Haiken of Caring.com recently reported on many studies conducted on senior isolation, and found that it can cause dementia, heart disease and even early death.

The Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) is committed to fighting senior loneliness, and does so through its various volunteer programs. Diane Hays-Earp, program and volunteer coordinator for community support services at JSSA, coordinates the kosher Meals on Wheels program, the Brenner Escort Transportation Program and holiday basket deliveries.


While all of these programs are put in place for specific reasons, Hays-Earp said that the people who volunteer for various positions in these programs are a source of companionship for seniors cared for by JSSA, many of who live alone.

“We help to alleviate some of their loneliness, especially around the holidays,” she said. “We bring a little bit of the outside into the seniors’ world.”

So how exactly do these volunteers help alleviate loneliness? Their presence alone helps, as many times they are the only people some seniors will have contact with throughout the day. But these volunteers go further than just being there to help with daily tasks. The volunteers, all of whom Hays-Earp said are from the community, make an effort to talk to the seniors about their day.

Drivers who transport seniors to doctor’s appointments or grocery stores don’t just drive. They talk about their day, and the seniors talk back. The same goes for volunteers who deliver meals every weekday and holiday baskets. “You actually have someone to go along with you. You have a friend,” Hays-Earp said. “The volunteers treat it like their job. I think they really step up to the plate.”

“It takes a entire community to work together and provide these services for our seniors so they don’t feel alone during the holidays and throughout the whole year,” she added.

A program that is specifically focused on senior companionship at JSSA is the Friendly Visitors program. Volunteers, who are dubbed friendly visitors, visit an elderly friend at least twice a month. While friendly visitors are there to help meet seniors’ needs, they are also there to be a companion and a source of conversation.

In many instances, friendly visitors may invite their elderly clients to their homes during the holiday season, depending on their wishes and if they want to have a relationship, according to Beth Hess.

Hess, a clinical social worker and therapist for JSSA, said that fortunately a large percentage of the organization’s senior clients have strong family support, even though many of them live alone. “I think it’s really impressive how supportive these families are of their elderly family members,” she said.

Despite having family support, many seniors may still need ways to combat loneliness. Aside from getting companionship from volunteers, Hess said that many find psychotherapy beneficial. “They do find it helpful to see somebody once a week,” she said. “They reminisce. They talk about what they did when they were younger; past jobs, parenting children, times when they were high-functioning and doing very well. It validates who they were and who they still are as a person.”

Hess also mentioned that many seniors live in senior buildings and independent living retirement communities, where they form friendships and relationships and can participate in various activities.

If seniors are unable to visit their family during the holidays and want to connect with the community, Hess said JSSA is able to connect them with groups in the area. Various groups and synagogues often have programs that allow seniors to get together with others for a holiday dinner or other activity, Hess said. In the case that a client wants help from JSSA in getting transportation set up to visit family and friends, Hays-Earp said the organization is always there to help.

Other ways to combat loneliness can involve learning a new skill. The Jewish Council for the Aging (JCA) offers classes to help seniors learn skills to help them become technologically savvy and career-minded if they’re seeking a new job.

JCA’s SeniorTech Computer Training class, which is taught at centers in the D.C. metro area, provides students over 50 with basic computer skills, such as email and word processing. In the case that seniors do have trouble keeping in contact with loved ones, learning Internet communication basics can be helpful, as online communication through social media and other outlets is a popular way of keeping in touch.

The Career Gateway! Program at JCA helps local job seekers over 50 get jobs they want or need, through interactive classes that help them with their resume writing, networking and interview skills.

What if a senior wants to combat loneliness on his or her own? Stephanie Modkin of Yahoo! recently shared tips on how one can take it upon themselves to overcome what is considered a struggle for many.

Pursuing hobbies and passions, keeping physically healthy, leaving the house frequently and getting a pet are all ways to overcome loneliness, she wrote. She also mentions that getting rid of the ideology that friendship is about socioeconomics and sexual identity is essential for seniors who want to make friends. According to Modkin, friendship is about bringing two souls together, who share the same qualities and interests, no matter their backgrounds.

Loneliness is never good for anyone and can be unfortunate for seniors to go through. Luckily, there are many ways to overcome this unpleasant experience and many people who are willing to help. For more information about JSSA and JCA services, go to jssa.org and accessjca.org.

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