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Recognizing the Signs of Isolation

elderly woman showing signs of isolations staring into space and frowning

Mom’s been on her own for about a year, and she’s still keeping pretty much to herself. She says she’s content, but I don’t think she’s getting out enough to be with other people. Should I be worried?

It’s natural to worry about a single or widowed parent being lonely. But it’s also important to recognize that not everyone views solitude the same way.

Introvert or Extrovert?
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Language has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

Extroverts tend to feel energized by being around other people, so they’ll find being alone much more difficult, even painful at times. Introverts, however, tend to feel drained by too much social interaction. Withdrawing for some solitude helps them refresh their mind and spirit, replenishing their energy reserves.

So it’s important to recognize if your parent or loved one is an extrovert or an introvert. Do they typically need alone time to “recharge their batteries” or get away from too much social stimulation? Or is this withdrawal unusual for them?

And which are you? If you’re an extrovert, it’s natural to assume that your loved one would want to interact with people as much as you do. Pushing them to be more social may not be what they need at all.

Signs of Isolation
Loneliness and isolation can have a devastating impact on one’s emotional well-being, physical health, and even length of life. So how do you know if even your introverted parent or loved one should be spending some more time with others?

The AARP Foundation lists four signs that a person may be isolated:

  • Deep boredom, general lack of interest and withdrawal
  • Losing interest in personal hygiene
  • Poor eating and nutrition
  • Significant disrepair, clutter and hoarding in the house

You can also walk your parent through a series of questions developed for the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which might help both of you realize how much isolation is impacting them. Here are a few of the questions to ask. An online version of the full 20-question survey can be found here.

For each statement, have your parent indicate how often they feel the way described by using these numbers: 1 = Never 2 = Rarely 3 = Sometimes 4 = Always

  1. How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?
  2. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?
  3. How often do you feel you can’t tolerate being so alone?
  4. How often do you feel as if no one understands you?
  5. How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?
  6. How often do you feel completely alone?
  7. How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with those around you?
  8. How often do you feel starved for company?
  9. How often do you feel it’s difficult for you to make friends?
  10. How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?

Add up the response to each question. The average loneliness score is 20. A score of 25 or higher reflects a high level of loneliness. A score of 30 or higher reflects a very high level of loneliness.

What to Do About Isolation
While solitude can be healthy, aging while truly alone isn’t. You can find ways to help your parent stay connected to others in ways that work for them. And if loneliness is a persistent problem, you and your loved one may want to start exploring senior living options so they can be in a community of peers and have an abundance of social opportunities to choose from.

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