Loneliness and social isolation are a growing problem in the UK; having a negative impact on the health of many older adults. Therefore, to overcome this in a care home or cohousing environment, social interactions are key.
How Loneliness and Isolation Occur
Social isolation can refer to the separation of an individual from their family, a deficiency of healthy relationships with others or decreased involvement with society. This is different from loneliness, which is described as a negative feeling that can occur as a side effect of social isolation.
Often, the feeling of loneliness can be experienced by older adults living in a group setting, such as a care home, who are often surrounded by others. This is because physical barriers such as loss of hearing, dementia and depression can all cause a resident to spend time away from others or exclude themselves from community activities.
Combatting Isolation Through Community
To help avoid the health issues caused by isolation and loneliness, older adults should feel as though they have a sense of purpose and are involved in a community. Although many older adults live in care homes, isolation and loneliness are still an issue, even though the residents are frequently surrounded by others. When the transition is made to live in a care home, the change of environment and new faces can be daunting, leaving a resident feeling isolated from the outside world and alone.
In practice, this can be done by giving residents regular and meaningful job roles such as helping at mealtimes and with laundry or perhaps assisting in the garden to grow fresh produce.
Other ways of promoting a sense of community within a care home would be to set up groups and clubs for the residents. This encourages residents to make new friends and gives them a sense of purpose which will overcome the negative effects of social isolation. Creating and encouraging groups of people to get together is effective, however one of the most beneficial ways to create a community environment within a care home is to encourage communal meals. These enable the residents to eat and socialise three times a day, along with other residents, staff and visitors.
Why Community Mealtimes Matter
For many, dining is more than just a healthy meal; it is a social highlight. Eating alone can often be alienating. If a care home encourages communal eating, the residents will have a chance to talk about their day, share their stories and make plans together. An example of a care home that implements communal meals is Castle Brook, run by WCS Care. Rather than cooking food in a remote kitchen away from residents, the food is cooked in specially designed ‘households’. Each of the three floors has two households on separate wings, featuring community focused kitchen, dining and lounge areas. Each resident’s room connects directly to these areas, allowing the resident the opportunity to spend time with others. This can help new residents become close to a smaller community rather than feeling out of place in a large group of people.
With an aging population, loneliness and social isolation amongst older adults is becoming a growing issue. Researchers say by tackling loneliness, a saving of £3.6m over five years on medical expenses could be made. Fortunately, through social opportunities such as community meals and clubs, the older adults can feel as though they belong in society again, and can create the relationship essential to get rid of loneliness. Our role now is to support the vulnerable and older adults by combatting isolation and ensuring every day is well lived.