As children grow into adults and young parents turn into senior parents, many times the family gets pulled apart and sometimes that distance has to do with location and other times it’s created by life becoming busier and children of aging parents having their own families to take care of.
But staying connected to your parents as they age, assuming your relationship isn’t strained or contentious, will not only add new chapters to your relationship, but it could stabilize and even improve their health as well.
Many experts have studied the correlation between loneliness and health among aging parents, especially when one parent lives alone and can't get out much.
But it just isn’t solitude that can potentially contribute to a an older parent’s declining health, say researchers -- it’s being removed socially, so living alone can be fine for some aging seniors, but if they’re not visiting with friends or family in between that alone time, it can truly affect their health.
“People with few social contacts may not have people around them who can give them advice, recommend that they go to a doctor with symptoms, ensure that they maintain healthy lifestyles, or perhaps they don’t have anyone around when they experience acute symptoms,” said Andrew Steptoe, who co-authored a study called Longitudinal Study of Aging.
“We all know people who might seem socially isolated but don’t experience loneliness because they are comfortable being on their own.”
In the study, Steptoe, along with partners Jane Wardle, Aparna Shankar and Panayotes Demakakos, gathered 6,500 people of both genders, and for a total of seven years the team examined levels of loneliness and social inactivity to see how strongly it correlated to the mortality rate of each participant.
Towards the conclusion of the study, researchers found that social isolation was a bigger contributor to death than solitude was, which Steptoe says is a huge sign that children of aging parents need to do all they can to not only provide the monetary help some parents may need, but the consistent human-to-human contact as well.
“The take-home message is that we need to keep an eye on the social connections of older people, since maintaining social contacts among seniors and reducing isolation may be particularly important for their future survival,” Steptoe advised.
According to a separate study by the University of California, San Francisco, an aging senior’s feelings of loneliness aren’t always attached to living alone, as research found that 43% of older adults felt lonely, even though they lived with someone, which suggests older adults who may live with their children or a spouse still need a steady amount of outside-the-home-interaction.
And for those aging seniors who don’t get that solid interaction, they have a 59% higher risk of suffering a health decline and a 45% increased risk of dying, researchers say.
“This is one of those outcomes you don’t want to see because it was terrible to find out it was actually true,” said Carla Perissinotto, MD, MHD, the lead author of the study. “We went into the analysis thinking that there was a risk we could find nothing, but there actually was a strong correlation.”
Along with the environmental reasons, Perissinotto said her and her team are trying to unearth the different reasons that cause some older adults to require professional assistance or a nursing home compared to other older adults.
“We are interested in identifying the different factors that cause adults to become functionally impaired and ultimately at risk for nursing home admission,” Perissinotto explained. “The aging of our population and the greater odds of institutionalization make it important for us to think about all the factors that are putting elders in danger, including social and environmental risks.”
What to do
Malia Jacobson, of the website Parentmap.com, told a local news outlet that adult children taking care of their own families should get their kids to help if they’re old enough, which will allow your parents to have a stronger level of consistency in terms of having someone keep them company, going places and remaining socially engaged.
In addition, experts say that children of older seniors should organize set times when each person can visit with their parents and take them places.
And children should have a firm grip on what their parents enjoyed doing in the past and make steps to not only organize that activity, but help to get their parents there.
In fact, experts say that for any activity or appointment that you arrange for your parents, you should be willing to provide transportation for them, as this will ensure they’re staying connected socially and not missing things like doctor appointments and prescription pickups.