By John Ramsay, Founder and MD of Social-Ability (www.social-ability.co.uk)
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, loneliness has reached a new level of intensity for older people and especially so for those living with dementia. According to a survey of 128 care homes by the Alzheimer’s Society, nearly 80% had seen deterioration in the health of their residents with dementia during lockdown due to a lack of social contact.
Sadly, for many, loneliness will not end with the approaching easing of social distancing restrictions – it was, already, a worrying reality of every- day life. However, this could be a watershed moment in how we address loneliness. By providing holistic solutions, effective technology tools and supportive training for staff, care home providers can help residents to build truly meaningful connections – not just fighting loneliness, but fostering happiness for the long-term.
ADDRESSING CHRONIC LONELINESS
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 56% of people living with dementia have reported feeling ‘completely isolated’, while a third of people living with the condition ‘felt like giving up’ last year, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for solutions that help people to build stronger connections within care home communities, amongst family and with care staff – and to sustain these connections for the long-term. But while lockdown has shone an important spotlight on the loneliness facing people with dementia, it is sadly not its root cause. In itself, the disease can also be a serious cause of isolation for people. In fact, a third of people report losing friends following a diagnosis.
The transition to living in supported accommodation or residential care can also make it harder to feel connected to their friends and family – a reality that has only been exacerbated further in the pandemic and which can have serious impacts for people’s physical health. Research has suggested that it can increase the likelihood of mortality by as much as 26% and, with as many as 1.4 million adults in England already experiencing chronic loneliness, this fact is even more concerning.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS THROUGH CONNECTION
For many families and care home residents, the ability to have regular contact through technology such as video calls has been a lifeline in the pandemic. This is something that I’m sure carers will have seen first hand and, as restrictions now ease, we must not forget the phenomenal role that technology can play in improving people’s wellbeing.
Video calls are far from the full story. For example, interactive sensory activities can be an effective way of breaking down barriers and helping people to build meaningful connections with the people around them. As lockdown eases, this will be a powerful way for families to reconnect. Not only can this increase people’s sense of community, happiness and empowerment, but sensory activities – such as interactive light-based games – have also been shown to improve the condition of those living with early, mid and later stages of dementia.
SUSTAINING THE FIGHT AGAINST LONELINESS
When powered by technology, connection-based activities can play a phenomenal role in helping to com- bat loneliness. At Alexandra Grange, a Hallmark care home in Berkshire that has been introduced to the Happiness Programme – a combination of interactive light technology and supportive training for care home staff – these initiatives have made a significant difference for people’s wellbeing. One resident in particular, who had stopped communicating verbally as their dementia had progressed, was helped to grow their vocabulary again and communicate more easily with their support team.
However, technology is not, in itself, the end goal. It is a tool to bring people together and, to be effective, it must be part of wider schemes that include training and support in its use for care staff. It is only through this support that such initiatives can be sustained for the long-term as part of a successful and holistic approach to engaging residents and boosting happiness.
AN END TO LOCKDOWN AND LONELINESS
Put simply, as we approach an easing of lockdown restrictions, loneliness amongst people with dementia remains an epidemic we cannot afford to ignore. But that does not have to be the end of the story. By leveraging the potential of interactive technology and combining this with effective support for staff around its use, care homes can not only fight a state of chronic loneliness but also create truly happy times for residents.