It is well-documented that loneliness and social isolation are linked to serious health conditions for seniors. Social isolation increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, and is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. In fact, social isolation poses as great of a risk of mortality as obesity and smoking. And loneliness in general has been tied to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
Seniors are already more at risk of becoming socially isolated, especially if they live alone or are being especially careful with social distancing. However, seniors in rural communities face an even greater risk of social isolation. These communities are often more sparsely populated with fewer resources such as community centers or adult day cares.
Despite the additional challenges, options remain for rural seniors to build a community, and caregivers can help ensure older adults can live in the region they desire while not putting their health at a greater risk.
Become a regular
Help your loved one find a place where everybody knows their name. Though rural regions may not have a dedicated community center, most of these communities develop an informal hub. From local restaurants to libraries to churches, attending the same place regularly – and at the same time of day – can help build relationships with other individuals. Encourage them that they shouldn’t be afraid to get breakfast by themselves or eat lunch alone at the local counter. Continually chatting with the other patrons will eventually lead to the formation of a circle of friends.
Find faith-based communities
Churches are often the backbone of rural communities, and faith leaders are always happy to see new faces in the crowd. Help your older adult find somewhere that feels comfortable, and take advantage of the activities and community-building events the church offers. Many churches will help place them in groups with like-minded members also looking for companionship.
One of the charms of rural communities is the residents’ resourcefulness and willingness to band together for the greater good. Volunteer opportunities abound as long as you look for them. For example, many school districts offer a tutoring program that pairs older adults with school-aged children. Gardening clubs are a great way to enhance a community’s beautification efforts and stay active. Does your loved one have special skills? Handymen and women are always needed, especially in nonprofit organizations with limited budgets. Assess their talents and capacity, and reach out to organizations you think could benefit from their help. Don’t be afraid to create your own volunteering opportunity.
Connect with faraway friends
The pandemic has encouraged more people to adapt to technology. As services like Zoom and FaceTime are more widely used, phone calls can be replaced with more interactive video chats with friends and family members. Not sure who to call? The Institute on Aging offers a Friendship Line for both crisis intervention and to chat with a friendly voice on the opposite end.
Many rural communities have robust local Facebook pages. Follow the updates of local stores, parks departments, school districts and community centers for information on upcoming events and gatherings. Participating in friendly conversation is a great way to make local friends that can translate to real-life relationships.