Question: My dad is a veteran and I care for him full-time. He tends to isolate at times. How can I encourage him to be more social? I don’t want to force anything or make him uncomfortable, but I worry about his mental health.
Answer: Social well-being is an important aspect of quality of life for all of us and especially important as we age. Social well-being is often overlooked by caregivers because we are so focused on our loved one’s physical health and well-being. Many seniors can become withdrawn and isolated as they age for a variety of reasons. For example, seniors who may be hesitant to leave their homes might be dealing with age-related health issues such as impaired mobility, incontinence or hearing loss, and may avoid socializing out of embarrassment.
Similarly, seniors who may be struggling with mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, may also withdraw from relationships and isolate themselves. Social connection can improve our physical health and mental and emotional well-being. A lack of social connection has been shown to increase the risk of depression, anxiety, dementia and substance abuse. It’s important for caregivers to find ways to keep their aging parents or loved ones socially engaged.
Social connection can improve our physical health and mental and emotional well-being. A lack of social connection has been shown to increase the risk of depression, anxiety, dementia and substance abuse.
In the veteran population, there’s a higher prevalence of both physical and mental health conditions stemming from military service-related stressful life events and traumatic experiences that may contribute to poor social functioning. Isolation, loneliness and poor social support is a longstanding concern in the veteran community that can be challenging for aging veterans. Try talking with your dad about his social isolation and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Inquire about any physical health and mental health concerns he might have that might be preventing him from wanting to be more social. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Four social activities for older veterans
Consider developing a social well-being action plan with activities that promote social support and connection. Here are a few recommendations to get you started:
- Encourage social well-being visits. Reach out to your friends, family and neighbors and let them know your concerns and invite them to visit with your dad or take him out to lunch or spend time doing something he enjoys.
- Explore connecting your dad to the VA’s Compassionate Contact Corps program. This is a new social prescription program where a VA-trained volunteer makes regular phone contact with isolated aging veterans. Enrollment in the Veterans Health Administration is required for a referral to this VA program. Search for other similar programs from local senior service organizations.
- Consider engaging your dad in adult day care services, such as the VA’s Adult Day Health Care Program. Adult day care services offer a place for seniors to socialize and participate in recreational activities in a supportive community-based setting. Enrollment in the Veterans Health Administration is required for a referral to this VA program.
- Encourage an activity that promotes a sense of purpose. Explore opportunities for volunteering; perhaps there’s something your dad might enjoy doing that he can do in the community or remotely at home. Volunteering can provide a sense of meaning and is connected to positive health and well-being.