The constructive power of companionship
Elder-care expert shares touching story about the need for companionshipOctober 9, 2012
Tackling issues of loneliness in long-term care residents has the power to transform lives.
An American study released in June focused on loneliness in adults over the age of 60 in relation to functional decline and death, and not surprisingly the study concludes that when older adults are isolated and lack companionship, their health declines.
Carla M. Perissinotto of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues worked on the study over a six year period and of 1,604 participants in the study, nearly half answered yes to at least one of the survey’s loneliness indicators.
During the six-year follow-up period the authors conclude that the functional decline of those lonely people was more rapid.
"Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons,” the authors conclude.
“We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death and multiple measures of functional decline."
During the Pioneer Network Conference in Jacksonville, Florida in early August, leading elder-care and dementia expert Dr. Allen Power shared a story about what can happen if a person living in a long-term care environment is without the joy of meaningful companionship.
Power shared the story of Ray, a man living with dementia in a U.S. long-term care home, and how combatting loneliness had a lasting impact on his life.
Ray was impulsive and loud; his gestures could often be perceived as aggressive, and people were scared of him.
“He would get frustrated and people didn’t know how to meet his needs, and one day his frustration built to such a point that he actually picked up a computer monitor and threw it across the nurses’ station,” Power explained.
Ray was in crisis and the police were called. When they arrived, Ray was elated.
“Thank God you’re here,” Ray told the officer. “These people are trying to hurt me, they don’t understand me. Get me out of here.”
The officer told Ray not to worry; they would take him somewhere safe and make sure he was all right.
After Ray left, staff spent time calming other residents and each other, and when the administrator arrived they expected him to join in their discussion and pat them on the back for doing everything right in a tough situation.
Instead, his first question to the team was, “Where did we fail Ray? Why didn’t we create the kind of place where Ray could feel safe and where he could feel cared for?”
The administrator reminded them Ray would go to hospital, where he would be drugged, sedated and maybe restrained, and he’d then be sent back to the home with no greater knowledge of what happened to him.
“Right now, Ray feels unsafe,” the administrator told his team. “He feels uncared for; he feels like nobody understands him, and right now I feel his frustration; I feel like I understand why Ray threw that computer more than I understand where we went wrong.”
Ray was lonely and trying to come to grips with his new perception of the world around him, and because of the way he acted, people avoided him, Power told the conference audience.
“There was no touch, there was no affection, there was no prolonged conversation,” Power said. “He would come to the nurses’ station and he’d get redirected or he’d go over to sit in the lounge but nobody would talk to him.
“He was extremely lonely.”
So they began to engage Ray upon his return. They had a chair for him at the nurses’ station. They made a point of chatting with him instead of shooing him away.
When they noticed him heading for his favourite chair in the lounge, someone would bring him a cup of coffee, just the way he liked it, and spend a few minutes talking with him.
“What they found was they changed Ray,” Power said. “They changed Ray by changing themselves, and he no longer got in crisis and he no longer had to be medicated or to go to the hospital.”
Power’s story stuck with me, for the idea of a life without companionship is unthinkable, and when tied to a study proving loneliness usurps life from a person, it makes me wonder what more can be done to ensure everyone has the opportunity to enjoy more meaningful relationships.
We’d love to hear how loneliness and depression can be addressed in your home. Please contact kristian(at)axiomnews.ca to share your story, or call 800-294-0051, ext. 24.
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