Is your aging parent lonely?
Isolation and loneliness are widespread among our elders.  It may begin with the the loss of a spouse.  It may be compounded by physical decline such as loss of driving ability, decreased hearing or vision.  Friends pass away.  There are fewer opportunities for social engagement than in a younger day.
Most elders prefer to remain in their own homes as they age, but one of the risks is lack of social contacts.  Even with a caregiver coming in to assist, there is still a lack of fun, excitement and connection to peers. Family members living at a distance may feel at a loss as to how to help.
Aging parents look for ways to occupy their time and find connection to others. Some turn to contests, such as the lottery or sweepstakes.
The Federal Trade Commission reports a recent research poll showing that more than half of all American adults entered sweepstakes within the past year.  Most are run by reputable marketers but some are skillfully created by con artists. They take advantage of the need for fun and excitement in lonely elders’ lives and offer to provide it. Who doesn’t like to win?
The con artists disguise their schemes to look legitimate and an alarming number of elders are tricked into playing, paying and getting ripped off.  Every day, the FTC reports, consumers throughout the U.S. lose thousands of dollars to unscrupulous prize promoters.  The seniors and others are contacted by phone or mail telling them they’e won a big prize.  When they go to claim it, they find out they have to buy something, often worthless, or to pay fees and other charges.
We know lonely aging parents are in a vulnerable position.  What can adult children do to protect them from getting taken advantage of by these clever thieves?
There is less risk of dependency on sweepstakes con men if your parent has a social life and fun things to do outside the home.  You can’t supply everything for them, but there are things you can do.
Here are 7 tips to help you protect your aging parents from some of the risks of loneliness.
  1. Maintain frequent contact.  Even if you’re used to calling Mom or Dad on a monthly basis or less, it’s time to increase the frequency.  If they’ve hit a milestone birthday, lost a spouse or other important person, or can’t drive any longer, they need more contact.  You don’t need any special reason.  Just make it a regular thing and call often.  My husband calls his 90 year old mom, Alice every day. She’s independent and gets out a lot, but she still needs to hear his voice.
  2. Visit in person at regular intervals.  Not only is it better than a call because you can see what is going on, it is best for the senior to see you, get a hug from you or feel the benefit of your physical presence. If distance and time make this a challenge, consider using Skype(TM), or other video to make contact a visible event.  If your aging parent is difficult and this is not enjoyable for you, keep it brief, but make it regular.
  3. Check out community resources for elders where your parent lives.  Most urban and suburban areas have senior centers with  good opportunities to connect and make friends. Entertainment and social games such as bingo are offered. If your aging parent was never a “joiner”, you can at least encourage him or her to give it a try.  You can accompany your loved one to an event for seniors, arrange transportation or otherwise facilitate the process.  Getting started in making connections with some support may turn a shy and lonely elder into a happier one.
  4. Take your aging parent to events she may enjoy.  Concerts, theater, community festivals, comedy, and other social activities are best enjoyed with company.  If your parent has you to go with him, he may have a chance to do things he could never do alone.  Start with things your parent has liked in the past, locate some doing your online research and offer to get tickets and arrange transportation.
  5. Ask your aging parent questions about such things as lottery entries and contests.  Some elders become quite addicted to entering things like these and can’t tell a legitimate lotto game from a ripoff scheme.  If you are available in person, check the mail and the contest entry forms.  Look for phony offers of “prizes” or letters saying “you’ve won!”.  When there are strings attached, such as having to pay fees to get winnings, it is not legitimate.
  6. For distance caregivers, consider hiring a geriatric care manager to check in on your aging parent at regular intervals.  You don’t have to have a housebound elder to use a geriatric care manager.  These professionals are often nurses or social workers, experienced in matching the elder’s needs to community resources for improved socialization.  They can find the activities, work out the logistics and go with the elder in your place if you are far away.
  7. Consider teaching your elder to use technology to maintain connections.  A computer with a camera is a bridge to anyone in the family.  Even an aging parent who has never touched a computer before can learn if willing.  Alice learned to use the internet at age 86 to pay her bills.  Now, she’s on it every day.  If she can’t find something she wants, she uses Google. It has opened a world to her.  If you’re not good at teaching, perhaps a kind grandchild will do the job or you can get grandma to attend a first timer’s computer class.  From our experience the effort is so worth it!
Everyone experiences loneliness at times, but it is especially difficult for aging loved ones.  We may forget that it is not so easy for them to reach out and do thing we ourselves do if we want to.  If we take the time to help, they’ll be happier and safer, too, from the next scam artist with the big prize offering.