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10 Tips to Stave Off Caregiving-Related Social Isolation

A host of health benefits come from maintaining meaningful connections.

Caring female counselor hugs a female patient during a group therapy session.

Caregiving, with its often laser-focused and time-consuming demands, is a risk factor for social isolation. When you care for a loved one who has an illness or chronic condition, your meaningful connections to people and activities can slip away, even if imperceptibly at first, unless you pay close attention to your own self-care.

Social isolation and loneliness can take a toll on well-being in a number of ways. These include increased risk for cognitive decline, heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immune function and depression, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).  Caregivers and others who lose social connections or have a feeling of being alone or separated from others are also more likely to be admitted to an ER or nursing home, the NIA reports. In addition to these physical effects, perceived social isolation or loneliness is a major risk factor for mental illness in later life, studies have shown.  On the flip side, social isolation raises the risk for caregiver stress, leaving caregivers vulnerable to changes in their health, according to the Mayo Clinic.

So it’s important to remember that maintaining your positive social connections and building new ones can help protect your physical and mental health as a caregiver. An active lifestyle not only lowers your risk of developing physical and mental health problems, it can also lengthen your lifespan, improve your thinking abilities and make you more resilient, and thus able to cope with challenges as you age.

Are you a socially isolated caregiver?

If caregiving challenges have left you feeling socially isolated, you may be all too aware that this is the case, or the feeling may have snuck up on you. It may help to understand that you are not alone in feeling alone. Between 40 percent and 70 percent of family caregivers experience clinical symptoms of depression, which can often be caused by feelings of isolation and loneliness associated with the caregiving experience, the Family Caregiver Alliance reported. And according to an October 2020 report from the AARP Foundation, two-thirds of adults reported experiencing social isolation and high levels of anxiety since the beginning of COVID-19.

Symptoms of social isolation include deep boredom, withdrawal, general lack of interest, poor hygiene and nutrition and significant disrepair in the home. If you are unsure whether you may be socially isolated, you might consider taking the connect2affect online assessment (connect2affect) created by the AARP Foundation in conjunction with the Gerontological Society of America, Give an Hour, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and UnitedHealth Group. If the assessment shows that you are at risk of isolation, you may want to explore the site’s searchable local directory of free or reduced cost services that are great ways to help you get connected with others. Services include medical care, food, job training, access to transportation, activities at senior or community centers and volunteer opportunities.

Reaching out for support is a sign of strength. No one can do it all, and ignoring your own needs can quickly lead to caregiver burnout. Prioritizing your self-care is vital to your well-being and, in turn, doing so helps make you a better caregiver.

What else can you do to avoid social isolation in the midst of your caregiving challenges? Here are some tips to help you stay connected with people and activities that matter to you:

Make connecting part of your regular routine

When you use a calendar to schedule regular in-person or virtual meet-ups with people who have a positive impact on you, you are more likely to stay connected. Having daily or weekly times to chat can keep friendships from slipping through the cracks, and can give you something to look forward to. Think of things you like to do together, whether you grab a coffee, take a walk, or simply sit somewhere quiet to talk. Choose people you can speak openly with. It can also be helpful to get your feelings out through letters or emails with those you are close to. If you need some instruction on social media, check into online or in-person courses at a local community center or library.

Explore faith-based groups

If you are part of a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship, check into activities that may be offered. It can be a wonderful way to meet others who share your faith and values, as you deepen and connect with your beliefs.

Exercise with others

Whether it’s a stroll around your neighborhood, a hiking club or a class at a gym, exercising in a group or with one other person is an excellent way to boost your well-being. The activity itself gets the endorphins flowing and enjoying physical fitness with others is an upper and can build connection. If you are a senior, consider checking out the SilverSneakers program, which offers a variety of online and in-person exercise classes at national gyms and local community centers.  

Return to a favorite activity

Have caregiving duties taken you away from doing things you used to love? It could be painting, singing, playing a musical instrument, cooking, or anything else that makes your spirits soar. Carve out regular times to have fun with whatever it is. Don’t feel guilty about spending the time on yourself, even if you only have a half hour at a time.

Take classes

Expand your social network by enrolling in classes or lessons on a subject that sparks your interest. Consider an online or in-person class at a community college or community center, public library or social service agency. While you explore the subject, you may make friends.

Ask for an old-fashioned introduction

If you want to meet a friend of a friend or a neighbor you don’t know, ask someone you know well to introduce you. Or try going to an activity or event that interests you but that you might not normally participate in.

Try volunteering

Lend your services to fill a need or to support a cause you feel passionate about. AmeriCorps Seniors offers an array of volunteer options to people who are 55 and older. For more information on volunteering, go to https://www.volunteermatch.org/.

Consider a meaningful job

As a caregiver, your plate is more than full, and it may even include a job and children of your own, in addition to all that you do for the loved one who is in your care. However, if you are in the market for a job or wish to shift the work you do to something you find more meaningful, flexible options do exist. This could be anything from working with children or an older adult to teaching a practical or creative skill you excel at. If you work from home, draw clear times to start and quit each day, and take an actual lunch break. This will keep you from working at all hours, and will give you more opportunities to reconnect with family members and friends, and to take breathers.

It may be that your loved one has passed, and you may wish to reach out to others who need care, by working as a home health aide. If this is a job that appeals to you, your compassion and skills can be a real asset.

Find encouragement through a support group

Becoming part of a support group puts you in touch with others who are walking your walk. It’s an in-person or virtual place to create new relationships and to share your feelings in a healthy and productive way. You can learn new coping strategies and simply remind yourself that you are not alone.

Be open to respite care

In order to remain connected with others, you need to allow yourself regular breaks from caregiving. This means reaching out for help. You may have family members who will step in to care for your loved one so that you can attend to your self-care. Other options include home health care aides and adult care programs and centers. When you leave your loved one in good hands for regular intervals, it affords you both the opportunity to mix and mingle with others and to keep and build meaningful bonds.

For more information on resources to combat social isolation, go to the NIA’s Social Isolation and Loneliness Outreach Toolkit.

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