What is social isolation and why is it a big problem for patients?
Social isolation is the total or almost complete lack of contact with family or friends as well as society in a larger sense. Patients who are socially isolated go without meaningful relationships with anyone, even if they still have relatives somewhere. It is a state of being apart from the rest of society and it leads to loneliness.
Social isolation is not a disease, so caregivers tend to put this problem at the bottom of the care plan or to-do list. If you’re a caregiver and you think social isolation is not a priority deserving of your efforts, think again. Being cut off from significant relationships and social contact has many negative health effects, which include (among others):
1. A decline in physical activity and movement
3. Disrupted sleep
5. Decreased mental functions such as memory, judgment, problem-solving skills, and reasoning
6. Decreased metabolism, or slowed bodily processes
7. Poor immunity, or resistance against infections
Other than causing physical decline, social isolation is also linked to higher patient deaths.
Social isolation can happen when a patient's disease or surgery causes disfigurement or a negative change in physical function, such as incontinence or any other form of embarrassment for them. In the elderly, the passing of a spouse is often the reason they distance themselves from meaningful social contact.
The next question is, what is the best thing to do about it? If you're a caregiver, how would you prevent your patient from becoming socially isolated? Below are some solid ways to get patients out of their shells:
1. Do not pass judgment or embarrass them.
It all starts with you, their caregiver. If they wet their pants because of incontinence, refrain from dropping comments such as, “You had an accident again.” Instead, offer your help to change their undergarments by saying, “Let me help you.”
2. Build up their morale.
Do or say things that will make them feel good about themselves. We are not talking about flattery here. But, complimenting them is a good idea when you mention things that are actually true. You can say things like, "I noticed you combed your hair nicely today. That hairdo suits you."
3. Talk to them yourself.
Make the first move to start conversation. For this tip, you have to be a little more creative and motivational. But first, be a little observant. What music do they listen to? What do their possessions tell you about their interests?
You may need to ask people who were close to them or their previous caregivers. This is where you can play detective to know what interests them to get them to talk and mingle. Then, play matchmaker by looking for other patients who share the same interests and bring them together. This spark can create a duo, then a trio, and eventually a whole group.
4. Invite them to dine with others.
Mealtimes are natural forms of socialization. When they are at the table, ask them open-ended questions that encourage them speak up and start a conversation with others.
5. Take advantage of technology.
Help them connect with long lost friends through social media and chat apps until they are comfortable enough to use them on their own. You’ll be amazed at what can happen once old friends start popping up on their screens!
6. Seek out community groups and support.
It is comforting for patients to know that they are not singled out as a needy sick person and that there are others who share similar stories yet are not embarrassed by their situations. Through support groups, they can discuss mutual problems and share tips on how to overcome. It’s a win-win situation against social isolation.
Some nursing homes introduce pets or arrange socialization with children, both proven effective in giving patients the drive and purpose to appreciate social connections again.
Caregiving is a wonderful job because, other than providing physical care, you touch people’s lives in ways that others can’t. When patients start to hide themselves away and slowly decline, caregivers have a special gift of being able to help them reconnect with the world again.
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