Dementia loneliness this Christmas

Dr Duncan Shrewsbury  II  DEC 16 2016

The festive season sees many communities and families coming together, loosening their belts and indulging in celebrations. For older adults, and especially those with dementia, this time of year can be especially isolating and lonely.  New research suggests that some of this loneliness could actually be due to the dementia: with over half of sufferers reporting that they see family less at Christmas since their diagnosis.

Dementia

Dementia is a long-term condition, which primarily affects memory and cognition (thinking), usually in older adults. It is currently believed to affect about 5 in every 100 adults over the age of 65, rising to about 20 in every 100 adults over the age of 80. Whilst dementia primarily affects memory, adults with dementia often have other physical and mental health problems, some of which are associated with dementia, such as depression.

Behind the headlines

The research alluded to in the headlines was based on a survey of people with Alzheimer’s disease, a specific kind of dementia. Specific circumstances and factors associated with the festive period proved particularly challenging for people with Alzheimer’s dementia, including:

  • Stress and work around buying gifts in busy shopping environments
  • Irritation and disorientation caused by decorations, lights and clutter
  • Seeing their regular visitors less often over the festive period

There are a number of reasons that may contribute to this, that possibly reflect the increasing pressures on people within society today. Relatives and carers often have other family, friends or dependents to attend to, as well as having their own care needs.

Isolation and loneliness

Becoming isolated and lonely is becoming increasingly common among our aging population. Isolation and loneliness is associated with significant detriment to both physical and mental health. As a future GP, I see many patients who have lost loved ones, or who have family that work away, and subsequently feel lonely.

There are some initiatives that are available through charities, or the National Health Service, that can help address this, dubbed ‘social prescribing’. However, there are often problems with sustainability, consistency, access and uptake with these services. In my experience, once some older adults have become isolated, they often lack the confidence to explore the opportunities that these initiatives (e.g. day centres, or befriending services) offer.

What to do

It is natural to feel more lonely and isolated when personal circumstances are contrasted with memories of family Christmas celebrations, or what we see or hear from others or the media.

If you recognise that someone is at risk of becoming isolated or lonely, there are some simple steps that, should you feel able, you can follow to offer help:

  • Start a conversation: simply stop, talk and listen
  • Share your time: stop by for a cup of tea, or share a meal
  • Watch out: if you notice any signs of illness or decline, prompt them to seek help, or offer to take them to see their GP
  • Consider a supportive Tea Party, such as Contact the Elderly

For information about help and support available to older adults who may have memory problems, or who are lonely, see: Challenging the issues of loneliness

For information about help and support available to those who are caring for older adults with dementia, see: The Dementia Guide – Support for Carers

Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

Sources

ITV. (2016) Festive period most isolating time of year for people with dementia. ITV report. 12th Dec: http://www.itv.com/news/wales/2016-12-12/festive-period-most-isolating-time-of-year-for-people-with-dementia/

Alzheimer’s Society. (2016) Christmas the most isolating time of year for people with dementia: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/news_article.php?newsID=2707

Manders T, and Hill L. (2014) Dementia and memory problems. Royal College of Psychiatrists: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/dementiaandmemoryproblems.aspx

Brodaty H, and Donkin M. (2009) Family caregivers of people with dementia. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 11(2): 217-228.

Cattan M, White M, Bond J, and Learmouth A. (2005) Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: a systematic review of health promotion interventions. Aging and Society, 25: 41-67.

Friedli L, Jackson C, Abernathy H, and Stansfield J. (2009) Social prescribing for mental health – a guide to commissioning and delivery. Care Services Improvement Partnership: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/uploads/attachment/339/social-prescribing-for-mental-health.pdf  

NHS Choices. (2015) Loneliness in the elderly – how to help: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/women60-plus/Pages/How-to-help-a-lonely-older-person.aspx