By Lisa M. Petsche
When someone is confined to their home due to convalescence from an illness, recovery from surgery, or chronic illness or disability, their world shrinks considerably. It’s easy to become disconnected from others and the world in general.
Unfortunately, family support for seniors in such situations is often limited. Societal trends that include delayed marriage, decreased family size, and increased mobility contribute to elder isolation. Even if adult children live nearby, they’re likely to be busy juggling careers and families of their own.
The following are some things that you, as a friend or relative, can do to support someone who is homebound and help him or her (for simplicity, the latter will be used from here on) stay engaged in life.
- Remember that you may have to be the one who makes most of the effort in the relationship. Plan to call or visit when you’re not rushed for time. Arrange a regular date to get together, and when you do, treat the person the way you always have.
- Allow her to express emotions freely. Illness and disability affect people physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But although there may be similarities, no two people experience their situation the same way. Listen attentively, demonstrate compassion, and provide words of encouragement.
- Encourage her to practice self-care by eating nutritiously, exercising (if appropriate), getting adequate rest, and avoiding unnecessary stress. Also encourage her to keep medical appointments. Do whatever you can to help make this happen. For example, bring over a meal or offer to drive her to an appointment.
- Ask, rather than guess, what kind of practical help you can offer. Perhaps it’s dusting and vacuuming, doing laundry or running errands. If your assistance is declined, continue to express your desire to help. Meanwhile, take it upon yourself to deliver a casserole or muffins or, if you’re a neighbor, sweep both walks or bring in both sets of garbage cans. Encourage the person to ask for and accept help rather than struggle alone.
- Bring a surprise gift, such as a favorite movie, magazine or food treat, fresh flowers or a plant, or a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant that has takeout and delivery service. If you’re on a limited income, sign out reading material, movies, or music she would enjoy from the public library.
- Help the person feel good about her appearance. Offer to set her hair or do her nails, or bring her a pretty new accessory. Put together a pamper kit of items to give her a lift when she’s alone – for example, a relaxation CD containing soothing sounds of nature, scented candles, fragrant shower gel or body lotion, foot balm, or gourmet coffee or tea.
- Encourage her to cultivate some solitary pastimes – such as taking up word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, writing, sketching, or a handcraft – that bring pleasure or fulfillment and enable her to enjoy her own company.
- Facilitate connections to the outside world by sharing news about family, friends and current events. Bring a newspaper or newsmagazine with you. Better yet, arrange a subscription for the person.
- Encourage her to get a computer and teach her how to use it. Internet access can help her stay connected to loved ones, keep up with local and world news, and gather health-related information, among other things. She can also take online education courses, play games like chess and bridge, and connect with others in a similar situation through Internet message boards and chat rooms.
- If mobility issues are preventing the person from accessing the community, encourage her to rent or buy a walker, electric scooter, or wheelchair and help facilitate this. Also help her register with the local accessible transportation service if appropriate.
- Offer to get information about community resources, such as home health care services, friendly visiting programs, shopping services, meals on wheels, and accessible recreation and leisure programs.
- Encourage her to seek help from her primary physician or a counselor if she continually feels sad, angry, or overwhelmed. There is no need to suffer, because depression is highly treatable.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.