Presence by the Christmas Tree: Help Fight Bay Area Seniors’ Holiday Loneliness

christmas loneliness seniors bay areaThere’s a magic alchemy to the holiday season, some kind of diffuse miracle that transforms the darkest, longest, and coldest nights of the year into some of the warmest and happiest. That miracle, that warmth, is the thrill of being surrounded by the people we love and the friendly goodwill abundant on the bustling city streets.

That’s not, unfortunately, the holiday experience for everyone. For many older adults, this is a season of amplified feelings of loneliness and isolation—millions of seniors struggle with the holidays as the hardest time of the year. Their daily, tragic isolation is magnified by the ghosts of memories, a reflection on what or who is no longer around. This sadness, and possibly regret, can be far more dangerous than we may acknowledge.

The rate of suicide for older adults, for example, is one of the highest for all age populations—an older adult dies by suicide every 100 minutes. But, there’s some evidence that these rates can actually drop during the holidays. And that’s not because of the visits of ghosts and memories past; it’s because the intervention and love of the living can make an enormous difference. There are many people who go out of their way to help older adults manage seasonal mood afflictions, and, if you’re in the Bay Area, you can do the same.

It’s the holidays, after all: what will you give?

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Marin County Volunteer Opportunities to Reconnect Older Adults with Their Community

marin county volunteer opportunities for older adultsEdna looked forward to each Wednesday with a special sense of excitement—it’s when she volunteered with 5th grade students in Sausalito. Over the past year, she’d formed a strong bond with not only the children, but their teacher as well: her lifetime of experience and knowledge was deeply valued inside the classroom, while seeing students grow motivated her to return time and again. After several years of retirement, these weekly volunteer sessions helped Edna connect more deeply to her community and form new, long-term relationships.

Volunteering on a regular basis can offer a much-needed antidote to the isolation many older adults struggle with as they get older. For example, the passing of a spouse or close friend can often create a need for new connections in older adults’ lives. Meanwhile, if your aging loved one has reduced mobility due to old age, it may be difficult for them to get in enough social time with friends and family.

Fortunately, many regions within the Bay Area offer inspiring volunteer opportunities for older adults. In Marin County, for instance, there are many ways for your aging loved one to give back to their local community. From managing the book cart at Marin General hospital to tutoring students at San Rafael’s Davidson Middle School or answering phones at the Alzheimer’s Hotline, exploring volunteer positions in Marin can be a fun activity for you and your loved one to do together.

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Sustainable Alternatives to Long-Term Care Insurance for Your Aging Loved One

alternatives to long-term care insuranceThese days, it’s natural for people to think about planning for their future long-term care when they’re still young. Whether it’s building a healthy retirement fund, getting a custom life insurance plan, or budgeting tightly over time, there’s a lot more education out there focused on preparing for healthcare costs well into old age. But previous generations haven’t necessarily grown up thinking about insurance or fall-back plans—even just 30 years ago, planning for your financial future wasn’t necessarily common.

The aftereffects of poor financial planning have, unfortunately, left many older adults today in a bit of a lurch. For example, your aging loved one may now need care they can’t afford because they don’t have insurance in place to cover it. Although they can’t go back in time to make different choices, we can help them to make new financial decisions now, ones that help them create a sustainable plan for long-term care. So whether your aging loved one is currently fit as a fiddle, or has recently started to lose the ability to care for themselves, there’s no time like the present to begin making smart financial choices. After all, everyone deserves to have access to the care they need.

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The Gift of Experience, The Gift of Compassion: Seniors Helping Seniors on the Friendship Line

Friendship Line IOA Tim Riel InterviewIssa looked out her window. It was a typical San Francisco December, cold and with a persistent fog, one of those clingy ones that, Issa thought, was the only thing left. When she was younger, this kind of day thrilled her. It was exciting to walk in the fog with Harold, when you could almost imagine yourself alone in the city.

But now, she felt truly alone. Harold had died nearly ten years ago, and the intervening decade found her more and more isolated, partly by unconscious choice, and partly by the effects of time on long friendships. This is not, she thought, a way to live: with no one to talk with except occasional interactions with a few younger people in her building, who would listen, but who didn’t understand. How could they? Without the gifts and problems of age, they didn’t seem to have a mutual language.

There are many people in the Bay Area, and around the country, like Issa. People who feel there is no one who has felt what they have. And that’s where the Friendship Line at Institute of Aging (IOA) comes in. This life-saving number provides comfort, empathy, compassion, and genuine friendship to older adults who call in. Perhaps most remarkably, many of the volunteers are seniors themselves.

This connection makes a huge difference, and helps further IOA’s mission of helping older adults age surrounded by love. Tim Riel, Volunteer Coordinator at the Friendship Line, has seen first-hand the impact of talking to a loving and compassionate voice. “To see how a caller goes from sad and depressed to laughing,” he told us, and “to change the outlook of someone’s life for the day” is a true tribute to their work.

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Supporting Your Loved One’s Emotional Recovery After a Hip Fracture

emotional recovery after hip fractureLengthy and difficult, the recovery process from a hip fracture can be both physically and psychologically trying for older adults: not only does the body need to heal, but emotional challenges must be attended to with equal care. In fact, research has shown that depression is one of the more frequent symptoms that can crop up during the recovery phase—“40% of older people who suffer a hip fracture go on to develop depressive symptoms.” There are many reasons why mental-emotional obstacles may occur after a hip fracture, as this type of injury drastically decreases an older adult’s level of independence, either temporarily or long-term.

Treating the emotional side of your loved one’s hip fracture recovery is also critical because it impacts their body’s ability to heal. In fact, studies have shown that depression negatively impacts an older adult’s ability to recover physically after a hip fracture. It lowers the immune system, and increases their likelihood of “developing infections like pneumonia as well as failing to regain their pre-fracture physical ability.” So in addition to proper physical therapy, medication, and rest, ensuring that your loved one’s emotional well-being is taken care of is equally important to their recovery success.

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Simplify Managing Your Loved One’s Diabetes with Help from Fitness and Nutrition Apps

manage diabetes with fitness and nutrition appsTechnology has had a profound effect on medicine—and what’s most exciting is that we’ve only brushed the surface of what’s possible. Each day, more and more older adults are being helped by new tech developments—and when it comes to diseases like diabetes that rely on ongoing treatment, the benefits can make a big difference to your loved one’s health. Between glucose-monitoring apps, online pharmacies, and health check-ups done by video conference, your aging loved one has access to more support than ever before.

These technologies can encourage older adults to stick with a healthy routine, order medications more easily, and stay in touch with their doctor at all times. Similarly, apps that enable users to track their meals, exercise, and insulin levels are proving increasingly helpful for older adults with diabetes. Having access to this kind of ongoing support through a smartphone or computer can help your aging loved one control their blood sugar, and manage the disease more effectively.

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San Francisco-Based Volunteer Opportunities for Older Adults to Engage Their Hearts and Minds

san francisco volunteer opportunities for older adultsEd looked up from his desk to see a young woman waiting patiently. She asked where to find books on teaching—she was starting a night course in education and wanted to prepare. The older man smiled and pointed her in the right direction, then went back to cataloging the new books that had just come in, with a smile on his face.

Volunteering a few times per week at the San Francisco Public Library had made a significant dent in the loneliness Ed had been battling. At 67 years old, and a retired professor living in Glen Park, he had suffered through periods of grief-fueled isolation ever since his wife passed away. Starting a volunteer position at the SFPL gave him a chance to meet new people—and continue to share his valuable professional experiences.

San Francisco offers an abundance of volunteer options, from animal shelters and homeless centers to schools and libraries. And volunteering can meet many emotional needs for our city’s older adults, whether it’s connecting with others, learning new skills, or making use of their own expertise. Remember that having a successful volunteer experience has a lot to do with whether a position is well-suited to the person. It’s helpful to talk with your loved one to figure out what they’re looking for, then search for the ideal opportunity together. And, engaging in a bustling community like San Francisco makes it all the more fun!

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Critical End-of-Life Choices: A Moving Presentation on “Being Mortal” in Morgan Hill


Dr. Arbore
IOA’s Dr. Patrick Arbore at the “Being Mortal” presentation. Photo courtesy Nichole Martin.

Compassionately navigating end-of-life discussions with patients is something that many doctors haven’t yet mastered. All too often, a doctor may unintentionally leave a critical conversation unexplored, or encourage the patient to make a choice that doesn’t have their ultimate best interests at heart. This can create bad experiences for patients near the end of their life—something that Dr. Gawande hopes to change.

A deeply important and highly-sensitive discussion, speaking to your loved one about end-of-life issues is undoubtedly challenging. The documentary “Being Mortalexplores different families grappling with the same problem: tackling serious illnesses and different end-of-life options. In the film, writer and physician Dr. Atul Gawande delves into the obstacles that can arise when doctors try to present the best options for a patient. Underpinning the film is a message of hope, encouraging people to work actively towards identifying and communicating their wishes for end-of-life care.

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Identifying Eating Disorders in Older Adults—and Where to Seek Supportive Treatment in the Bay Area

identifying eating disorders in older adultsWhile eating disorders might seem like it generally affects teenagers, older adults are in no way immune. In fact, many people who suffer from an eating disorder in their teen years can relapse later in life, especially if they never fully recovered. For example, an eating disorder might crop up again as a means to emotionally cope after a loved one passes away.

Family members, caregivers, and even doctors, can mistake the signs and symptoms for something else, and aging adults suffering from eating disorders often try to hide it, or are in denial.

It’s imperative that caregivers be on the lookout for whether their loved one has an eating disorder—the consequences for older adults can be life-threatening. While they can wreak havoc on anyone, the damage is more severe on older bodies. Being too thin can increase your loved one’s risk of osteoporosis, bone fractures, organ dysfunction, and prevent their brain from functioning properly. Bulimia, meanwhile, can cause serious heart problems and bone density loss. The only way to prevent further damage, both physically and emotionally, is to get to the root of the problem—and seek treatment.

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Yoga Teaches Bay Area Older Adults How to Embrace Aging—and the Suppleness of Life

ioa_excersizeLucy is 93 and, when asked about the secret to her longevity and health, will open up about childhood hardships, including her family being denied the right to vote when she was growing up, and a turbulent move to the Bay Area in the last 60s. But these struggles never broke her family, she says. They didn’t wither in the face of implacable hatred and injustice, because they were able to always find new ways to rise above, new avenues of success. “When they zigged,” Lucy likes to say, “we zagged. They were rigid, but we were flexible.”

I’ve thought a lot about that philosophy while talking to Lucy about her newest hobby: yoga. She took to it instantly, and I wondered if, in addition to the health benefits, she saw in yoga a kinship to the principles that got her through life. She agreed, “Life isn’t about fighting against everything like a tree unbent in the wind. Those trees fall. Life is going to throw obstacles at you, try to break you, especially as you get older. It’s all about being flexible enough to adapt to things, to let yourself be free, and to be open to whatever might happen. Yoga let’s me remember that.”

Indeed, there is a reason why yoga has become more and more popular with older adults, especially in the Bay Area, over the last few years. It’s wonderful exercise, a great way to socialize, and teaches important principles that we need to remember as we get older. There are contortions in yoga, and in life, that we think we just can’t do. But with an open mind, and a willingness to try, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.

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