Loneliness is not a word we are not all that comfortable with.
We don’t like to admit that we are feeling lonely, and we feel uncomfortable when others tell us they are feeling lonely. Perhaps this comes from an innate need to feel that we belong, and that we feel a wave of mixed emotions when someone close to us admits to or shows symptoms of feeling lonely - whereas their statement of their own feelings suddenly becomes about us. Do I not visit enough? Call enough? Should I get other people to call and interact more? How can I fix this?
This is especially hard when it is a close family member, where it is hard to separate emotions of feeling loved and feeling lonely. Other emotions come into play, such as frustration (I’m already visiting and calling as much as I can!), blame (my sister should be calling a lot more), defensiveness (I am already doing everything all on my own) and anger (you barely talk to me when I do call, so why would I call more often?).
These may or may not sound familiar, but they are normal human reactions and thoughts, and we need to recognise that these feelings are also valid and very real.
‘Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it. ‘
A 2013 study by the UK Alzheimer’s Society suggests that the nature of dementia compounds loneliness - despite the efforts that the people around them are making to reduce and prevent loneliness. A major factor highlighted was that loneliness could be considered a consequence of the deteriorating social skills that are part of the personality change as dementia progresses, such as:
Slow reaction time in conversation
Decreased attention span
Disorientation - becoming lost, confused
Failure to recognise people and faces
Forgetting recent events and conversations
Lack of ‘turn taking’ in conversations
Frequently forgetting words
Lack of interest in socialising
Problems with coordination - shaking, trembling
Saying inappropriate things
Quick changes in mood
Changes in personality and interests
Neglecting personal hygiene
Fear of new people around them
However, a particularly painful issue leading to increased feelings of loneliness is that people with dementia may have a lot of visitors, but they simply do not remember that somebody has been to see them.
Something to consider…
Increasing the frequency of social interactions with your loved one may not be what is needed to reduce these feelings of loneliness, and there are other things that can be done to improve the interactions we are already having so that your loved one with dementia feels less lonely.
Plan social visits for the time when your loved one feels best, not when it’s best for the visitor. A common phenomenon for people in mid- to late-stage Alzheimer’s is “sundowning,” or late-day confusion.
Try to plan your visit in a place that is calm, doesn’t have a lot of distractions and can be quiet.This is still true for video calls! Try to make sure that they are not in a busy day room, that their TV isn’t on and that you don’t have much noise or distraction in your own background.
Have a Plan
Plan to go for a walk together, look through old photo albums, watch family videos, listen to music together, do a craft together. Entering into your visit with a plan will help to keep things moving comfortably when those awkward points hit, and can help to make your social interactions more meaningful and memorable for both of you.
Use Technology to your advantage
Face to face contact is incredibly important for those with dementia because these types of conversations provide visual and sensory clues which can help them form memories more easily. You may find that your family member struggles more with phone conversations than in person or video conversations for this very reason.
Now that we are dealing with COVID and our loved ones are having to isolate and cocoon it is even more important to maintain face to face interaction.
If your loved one is comfortable and able to use a smart phone or an iPad / tablet try using video calls rather than phone calls. If your loved one is not able to use this type of hand-held technology comfortably try using a Mylo for completely hands-free video calling to keep in touch and to help reduce the loneliness your loved one may be feeling.
And do remember - you don’t have to feel alone when you’ve got Mylo with you.