By Lisa M. Petsche
More than half of the senior population has a chronic illness, defined as a permanently altered state of health that significantly affects daily living. Examples include arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
There can be many difficulties with progressive diseases, including altered appearance, strength, coordination, energy, communication, mobility, roles and responsibilities, previously enjoyed pastimes and plans for the future. Increased dependence on others can strain relationships, threaten identity and negatively affect self-esteem.
Common emotions include anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, sadness and embarrassment. If not resolved, they can result in a negative attitude characterized by bitterness, self-pity, self-loathing or hopelessness, alienating others or prompting withdrawal from social situations.
While sustaining all relationships may be impossible, close relationships – a vital source of pleasure, validation and practical support – need to be nurtured or, if need be, new connections forged.
If you or a loved one is living with a chronic health condition, read on for some ways to prevent or overcome isolation and ward off depression.
- Recognize that, like you, your family and friends will need time to adjust to the reality of your illness and the lifestyle changes it necessitates, and may not know what to say or do. Let them know how you wish to be treated, and keep communication lines open.
- Accept offers of help and ask for assistance if necessary. Give loved ones the opportunity to be involved in your life in practical ways.
- Take the initiative in calling friends and relatives to talk or arrange get-togethers.
- Make it easy for people to get in touch with you. Get an answering machine and perhaps also a portable telephone.
- Keep in touch with out-of-area loved ones through regular phone calls, letters or email.
- Find at least one person you can talk to openly, who will listen and empathize.
- Consider joining a community support group for people challenged with a similar illness. Information on groups can be obtained from your local hospital, community social workers and your local office on aging. An Internet group is another option.
- Sign up for an adult education course or lessons that interest you. Check out the programs available at the local senior center or community center as well as educational institutions. Learning something new can be energizing and confidence-boosting, and in the process you might make new friends.
- Get involved in your community by volunteering – perhaps with a neighborhood association, church group, charitable cause, political campaign or environmental issue. If getting out is difficult, you might consider volunteering with a telephone reassurance program or engaging in some other type of home-based service.
- If mobility issues prevent you from accessing the community, rent or buy a walker, scooter or wheelchair.
- Investigate available resources in your community, which might include telephone reassurance services; friendly visiting services; volunteer driver programs; accessible transportation; therapeutic day programs; home health services involving personal care, homemaking and therapy services; and supportive housing. Such information can be obtained from the area agency on aging.
- Do nice things for others, especially those who are going through a difficult time. This takes your mind off your own situation, boosts your self-esteem and strengthens relationships.
- Get a pet. Cats and dogs provide companionship and affection, and give you a sense of purpose. Owning a dog also ensures you get out of the house and get regular exercise, facilitates socialization and offers security. Just make sure you can properly care for the type of pet you’d prefer to own.
- If you live alone and don’t like it, consider taking in a boarder, sharing accommodation with a relative or friend, relocating to a condominium or apartment in a senior living community or moving into a retirement home.
- Seek help from your primary physician or a counselor if you continually feel sad, angry or overwhelmed. There is no need to suffer, because depression is treatable.
Lisa M. Petsche is a social worker and a freelance writer specializing in boomer and senior issues. She has personal and professional experience with elder care.