It’s a problem so big that some experts are calling it a public health concern. It impacts both a person’s emotional and physical wellbeing.
And while it can affect most anyone, this condition especially targets the elderly.
The problem I’m talking about?
Complicating the issue of loneliness is that there’s a stigma around it. Some people might think loneliness is due to a “social weakness, or an inability to stand on one’s own,” according to a recent New York Times article on the topic.
Yet for many of the older men and women in our communities, solitude isn’t exactly a choice.
People in their lifelong support network – their friends and even their spouses – might have died. Health and mobility problems might limit their ability to get out and meet new people, resulting in isolation. Some older people can become overwhelmed at recent life changes, like moving to a new town to be closer to family, or entering an assisted care facility.
People in this season of life will tell you it’s a shock to lose independence after a lifetime of autonomy.
Whatever the reason, the bottom line is many aging people are left vulnerable to the myriad of conditions researchers are finding are linked to loneliness. This includes “physical illness and … functional and cognitive decline.” This decline might be influenced by the fact chronic loneliness can overstimulate the body’s stress response by increasing the levels of cortisol, which is a major stress hormone. That can “raise blood pressure, decrease blood flow to vital organs … and impair the immune system’s ability to fight infection.”
How can we, as individual Christians and the Church, step in to help the elderly community deal with loneliness? Here are some thoughts pulled together with the help of Focus’ counseling team:
1. Check your motives
It can be tempting to volunteer to visit an elderly person to check off a box in our list of things to do to be a “good Christian,” or to somehow feel better about ourselves.
Don’t be like that.
Reach out for the right reasons. Serving the elderly isn’t about us; it’s about them. It’s about loving as Jesus loves – sacrificially, unselfishly and faithfully. It’s about ministering to people for the simple reason that they’re created in the image of God and possess human dignity.
2. Be persistent in your pursuit of relationship
Chronic loneliness can cause people to feel like they’re drowning in a sea of hopelessness – it seems like nothing will make it better. And because it takes energy to let someone in, many times lonely people will push others away.
This means that help must be substantive (who wants to let someone in who only offers simplistic solutions and empty platitudes?) and sincere. Be willing to roll up your sleeves and really minister to them. Keep at it, even if they don’t initially welcome your friendship. After all, God pursued us. He loved us while we were yet sinners.
3. Don’t be afraid to touch
Despite touch being an essential human need – it’s one of the first ways we receive love as a baby – many elderly people go days or even weeks without a loving touch. So when you visit with someone who lives an otherwise solitary life, show appropriate affection. Put your arm around them. Hold hands. Give them a hug hello and goodbye.
4. Provide practical help
Something as simple as changing a light bulb or refilling a water bottle shows you care and meets real needs. Ask what you can do to help.
5. Let them lead
Don’t impose an agenda on the people you’re ministering to. Instead, get to know them. What are their interests? What do they like to talk about or do?
Many times, visiting with someone who is aging means letting them tell you stories. That can be especially true for those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
6. Cross-pollinate among church communities
Adults aren’t the only ones who can minister to the elderly. Cross-generational ministry benefits both parties: Children and younger people can bring joy to someone who is isolated while being enriched with the wisdom and experience of a previous generation. As the Church, we should encourage interaction and relationship between the young and old.
As we’ve long said here at Focus, being pro-life means honoring all human life. That’s why I encourage all of us as believers to seek out elderly men and women and offer company, friendship and practical help. What an opportunity to minister to people and show God’s love!
I’d love to hear from you. If you’ve ministered to an aging person – or have appreciated the help of someone who’s tended to a far-away loved one during their time of need – would you tell me about it in the comments below?