Social isolation and loneliness are separate concepts even though they are often used interchangeably. Social isolation is the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly. Loneliness is the sense of being alone that includes distress or unpleasant feelings associated with having fewer-than-desired social relationships.
Social Isolation ≠ Loneliness
One can be socially isolated but not feel alone. In fact, older adults often have fewer social relationships than their younger counterparts but derive more from each relationship, and some individuals seek solitude. Further, one may not be socially isolated (have others around them) but still feel lonely.
Social Isolation and Memory Impairment
Memory impairment can devastate a person’s ability to socialize but being among other people is incredibly important for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s or related dementia. Social interaction is healthy, like exercise for the brain, and can slow symptoms including worsening memory. In fact, staying socially engaged with friends and family has been shown to boost self-esteem, which for people with memory impairment means better eating habits, more exercise, and better sleep.
Think of interaction as a challenge. Your loved one may want to be alone because processing multiple stimulus has become more difficult, especially in middle stages of dementia, but getting out and having conversations forces the brain to be active. Someone with memory impairment might spend time daydreaming, and this internal place can make them feel content and comfortable. Being able to switch from inside to outside the mind, from daydreaming to talking with another person, is an important skill to maintain and socialization can achieve that dexterity.
Human interaction also grounds a person in the present. Someone with memory impairment is prone to losing track of time and setting, perhaps not even knowing what’s happening in front of their eyes. Social contact can maintain a sense of reality.
And humans are social creatures! Being with others to talk and share experiences nurtures the soul. Feeling a sense of belonging is, of course, better than feeling alone.
Making Social Interactions Successful For Memory Impairment
Let visitors know they should “go with the flow,” and follow these guidelines:
- Talk slowly and avoid quick phrases or ambiguous wording
- Be prepared for emotional or inappropriate outbursts, and don’t respond angrily or get offended
- Maintain eye contact and if needed crouch to their level
- Identify the person with dementia by name, to let them know when they’re being addressed
- Be prepared for forgetfulness and confusion and to repeat questions
- Use props or point to objects, if needed
- Look interested in what is being said