Being lonely is difficult for anyone, but for many older adults, with their accumulated losses of the workplace, friends, spouses and other family members, the growing isolation becomes a source of constant emotional pain.
"The days are very long for older people living alone, unless they are very active," says Pat Rubaum, assistant director of USC's Andrus Gerontology Center.
"And even when they are actively involved during the day, they often feel anxious when they come home in the evening to an empty house," she explains. "The husband, the wife, the sister or brother they were living with is gone, and for maybe the first time in their lives, they're alone. I feel it is crucial for these people to stay connected with their families."
Figure out what you can do within the parameters of the needs of your own life, Rubaum suggests. Most of the time, all that the elderly really need is personal contact, on a regular basis, with someone who cares enough to call often to make sure they're all right and to visit and/or take them out once in a while.
"Whatever the amount of time you want to give, whether it's once or twice a week or once a month, give it graciously," she says.
"I do it with my own family members who are alone. We have a family brunch once a month, and we all get together to see each other and the grandchildren. We talk, catch up on the family news--it means a lot to all of us."
If you are able to visit your parent a few times a week, make the most of those visits. Perhaps you can plan a weekly luncheon date at a favorite restaurant or a trip to the local supermarket to stock up on the week's household necessities. Doctor or dentist appointments can be arranged to fall on the days when you can lend a hand.
In addition to this, invite your aging family members to special occasions, such as graduations or engagement parties, so that they feel they are still a part of these important events.
Once you have established a routine that gives some structure and stability to your aging parent's life, make a few telephone calls on his or her behalf, says Rubaum. "There are simple things that you can arrange for them that will support their independence and make all the difference in their life style. First, call your local library and find out if they have a service that brings a book cart to the home. Ask about large-print books, books on tape and videocassettes.
"Call the telephone company and find out what they have to offer their aging clients. Be sure to inquire about any enhanced visual and hearing devices that are available, such as an enlarged dial face or an audio aid in the receiver."
Rubaum also suggests calling one of the medical-supply houses about "low-technology devices," which are nothing more than common-sense products designed to help the elderly maintain an independent way of life. Some examples: handrails, quad canes, grab bars in the bathrooms, walkers, a reacher for high cupboards, pill dispensers, magnifiers and weighted utensils. Ask for brochures to be sent, and then choose the appropriate aids for your parent.
Staying active in volunteer groups and charitable organizations gives a tremendous psychological lift to older adults, Rubaum notes. "It keeps them functioning in the world. Try to help them stay with their lifelong interests, in charity work, politics or volunteer work, so that they follow their natural enthusiasms."
The gerontologist recommends DOVES (Dedicated Older Volunteers in Educational Services), (213) 625-6080, which recruits and assigns seniors to work in the schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District; RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program), (213) 461-4363, which provides the opportunity for volunteer activities in the field of public service, and Andrus Older Volunteers, (213) 743-7541, a group that has placed a number of valuable volunteers at Andrus Gerontology Center.
A top priority is helping your aging parent to stay as independent as possible, Rubaum states. "If they are not terribly infirm and can manage on their own most of the time, that's great. However, if you notice that they seem to be having a hard time with the cooking and housework, you might want to discuss with them the possibility of supplementing their efforts."