Elizabeth M. Long’s own experiences with her mother motivated her to write about how nurses can combat social isolation and loneliness in senior adults in the community.
Q. What prompted you to write about social isolation and loneliness in older adults?
A. My mother, who suffered with mental illness, spent her last 15 years isolated at home, only agreeing to go out to healthcare provider visits for prescription refills. She rarely saw anyone. She did not have dementia and she could make decisions for herself. As a Christian, a daughter, and a nurse practitioner, I felt helpless. Anything I tried would not bring her out or improve the quality of her life. I kept her as safe as I could for as long as I could.
In my search for evidence, I became interested in older adults and the growing problem of loneliness and isolation in this population. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant isolation of residents in long term care furthered my interest. Mother began to decline and was placed in a skilled nursing facility to attempt rehabilitation. On the day she was admitted, all visitation to the facility stopped due to COVID-19. She died 2 weeks later. Even though I am a certified gerontological nurse practitioner, I was unable to help my mother at the end of her journey.
Q. What can nurses do regarding the social isolation and loneliness of people in their church or community?
A. The key is connection. Older adults generally like traditional face-to-face visits. Intentionally visiting someone can have long lasting impacts—a real visit, not just to quickly serve communion and move on. Anyone can reach out with a weekly telephone call. Studies suggest telephone contact can help to combat isolation and loneliness.
Letter writing may have meaning for older adults. We currently have a project in the School of Nursing where I am employed; students send letters, art, and other crafts to residents in LTC facilities. Some residents have written back, and the nursing students and residents have become pen pals. Some students and residents keep in contact after graduation. This project has been a positive way to promote connection among generations.
Q. How do you believe Scripture speaks to caring for older adults related to this concern?
A. God did not make us to be alone. From the beginning, he said Adam should not be alone and needed a help mate (Genesis 2:18). Scripture gives examples of reaching out to others and building community (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, 12; Hebrews 10:24-25).
A favorite parable is about the lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14). Though not a typical passage tied to the topic of isolation or loneliness, we are called to go after that one sheep—it should not be out there alone.
Q. How is this topic influencing your nursing practice?
A. I am hoping to spend the last decade of my career battling loneliness and isolation in older adults. I hope to help open up the conversation and work toward practical solutions. I feel strongly that this is to be my platform, a way to be a voice for my mother and others like her, but I am not sure how that looks yet. Certainly, research studies to build an evidence base are one way; involvement in developing health policy on the state and national levels might be another. Locally, it might be as simple (but meaningful) as working with the homebound ministry at my church to develop a visiting, telephone, or even letter writing ministry.
Elizabeth M. Long, DNP, GNP-BC, CNS, FCN, is an assistant professor of nursing at Lamar University (Texas), a gerontological nurse practitioner, and a faith community nurse.
Her article, “Faith Community Nurses: Identifying and Combating Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults," is in the current issue of JCN; it’s also has the option of continuing education credit.
JCN online and print subscriptions, reduced price CE, free CE with quarterly Journal Clubs and a raft of other benefits come with NCF membership. Check it out here.
On Social Isolation
I have just finished a very helpful book by Alice Fryling - Aging Faithfully The Holy Invitation of Growing Older. In it she wrote about the gift of listening to (or of being listened to.) It is a small but rich book on what we experience as we age and how God offers us growth through the changes and losses of aging as we learn to let go and accept His invitation to new birth. There is an Epilogue on Listening Well to Aging Friends.
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