Lovely (background)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Loneliness... what is it good for?

I spent a few days last week in a little city 115 miles south of Denver called Pueblo, where our newest health care center opened just a few months ago. Unfortunately, they’ve recently lost their only social worker, and I requested to travel on down to assist while the search for a replacement began. After all, everyone needs a little change from time to time, and if that happens to also include a free hotel and food for a few nights … well, then I figure why the heck not? However, what I found to be the most worthwhile part of the gig was the small caseload in Pueblo. The healthcare center there currently has only 50 clients since its opening. I normally carry a caseload of 70 by myself, this in addition to the caseloads of my 4 other co-workers in our Denver office, proves for a very busy office. Needless to say I was amazed at how much work I could accomplish at this new and seemingly bare facility.

One thing that I should probably mention is our health care centers not only house doctor’s offices and rehab gyms, but we also offer adult day centers. Here, seniors who are in need of socialization, or those who require daily supervision due to dementia, etc., can attend our center Mondays through Saturdays. As well, our philosophy of care strongly revolves around these client’s rights, and as such, those who are competent to do so are welcome to wander about the building as they wish. This creates a work environment that encompasses a lot of people seemingly just hanging around. I often receive ‘drop ins’ at my office throughout the day from clients who have questions, those just saying hello, or, more often than not, clients who simply want to talk. This is great, except that I am typically in the middle of WORK. I’ve found that some of my most beloved clients can tip toe on my last nerve when I’m taking a phone call and they are hovering in my doorway, or plopping down in a chair awaiting my attention. I am sure we’ve all experienced this kind of annoyance in the work place at some time.

But, how can I honestly blame them… being that I work with seniors, the one thing they love to do is TALK. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with a senior, you may know that they love conversation, to a point that breaks all social boundaries. I first learned this growing up around my grandfather, who, at the young age of 13, could corner me for over an hour talking about his time in the war. Much like grandpa, my clients don’t recognize normal social cues that indicate someone has lost interest or has checked out of the conversation. It’s not rare for me to spend hours at a person’s home during a routine home visit listening to their life time’s worth of experiences and stories, often not having even a chance to interrupt or mention that I’m late for my next appointment.

You may find it surprising that amongst the high rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease prevalent in the aging population, depression and anxiety rank right up there. As many clients on Aricept and Namenda (common drugs for memory loss) there are almost just as many on Lexapro and Celexa (common medications for depression and anxiety). When a new client joins our program, my assessment includes tests for both memory loss AND levels of depression. It’s a sad truth but when we’ve all retired, outlived many of our loved ones, and have suffered many debilitating physical losses, such as our eye sight and hearing, our world gets smaller. We end up seeing less of the world and it sees less of us. My belief, based on my experiences, is there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness encountered by the elderly. They have so much to share… and not enough people around willing to hear.

Prior to where I am at now, I worked as a volunteer coordinator for 2 years with a hospice agency. This was an incredibly rewarding job as I traveled throughout the city finding ways to infiltrate social and religious groups with the purpose of educating communities about the need for ‘friendly visitors’ among the senior population. Those home bound or living their life out in a nursing home are at the highest risk of isolation and depression. My current company’s volunteer program has developed much of its purpose around combating this issue of loneliness. We have between 100 and 200 volunteers, many of whom chose to give their time simply to spend an hour or so with a senior, providing companionship, and giving someone a little something to look forward to in an otherwise mundane existence. Just an hour. I’d encourage anyone looking for some way to give back to seek out a local hospice agency or other senior organization utilizing volunteers. My experience is that more often than not, the volunteer gains more than the people whom they are giving to.

So, on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday when Jo Blow is scheduled to be at the adult day center, I better believe what he is looking forward to is talking to someone; anyone who will listen in fact… including that young, nice social worker at the end of the hallway. Frustration and annoyance aside, I find I must stop what I am doing and listen.

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