HR: How to empower employees to fight social isolation among senior living residents

The fight against social isolation among older adults is not new for senior living community leaders and employees. These residents, however, now are at even more risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness, which can have negative health outcomes ranging from dementia to stroke to even coronary heart disease.

Under normal circumstances, residents can enjoy visits from loved ones and old friends as well as facility-sponsored outings to fill their emotional cups. These are unusual times, however, and as you are all too well aware, many senior living locations have had to enact visitor restrictions for health and safety reasons. These are necessary precautions, but as a result, 43% of older adults report feeling lonely.

The potential for social isolation to lead to health deterioration is greater in our current environment. It’s up to leaders and employees to show extra empathy and lead with emotional intelligence to fight the loneliness epidemic.

Reducing and removing social isolation’s sting
Two key components must be present to combat loneliness and social isolation: compassion and empathy. Fortunately, according to one survey, empathy already has been identified as a key driver of success by 80% of business leaders. But to encourage your staff members to act compassionately, you need to demonstrate traits such as listening, understanding and caring. Why? Employees led by empathetic leaders tend to mimic that empathy — and that’s good for residents struggling with loneliness.

Start by giving your staffers a literal tool kit, which can include everything from several sweet and funny greeting cards to a list of ways they can forge stronger bonds with the people in their care. As part of your initiative, urge workers to incorporate some of the following actions into their days.

1. Take five.
Empower employees to spend five extra minutes with residents every couple of hours to break the isolation cycle. During their time together, employees should focus on being present and engaged. Arm your employees with tips on how to talk compassionately about social isolation with residents so they can process these feelings, open up about their experiences, and overcome loneliness.

Staffers also can use these touchpoints to help residents set up Zoom meetings with their loved ones or learn about their tablets’ apps. So often, residents feel disconnected from the outside world. By reconnecting them through technology, though, you’ll help them feel less alone.

2. Reconnect with nature.
Did you know that some physicians have begun prescribing “green space” visits to people with mental health concerns? Getting outdoors is vital for residents’ overall mood. Short walks are good for the body and the soul. Even if certain residents have mobility issues, just being within nature — dressed appropriately for the weather — soothes the mind and fuels the heart.

3. Assign accountability buddies for organized activities.
Organized events are a mainstay of senior living communities, yet some residents struggle to break the vicious cycle of increasing solitude. Help individuals overcome social isolation by assigning them staff accountability buddies. Having a friendly staffer there to push residents to try something new may be just what they need. A whole host of resources are online (like this one) to offer great ideas for fostering community while staying safe.

4. Remember the immense value of small gestures.
From little bags of candy to hand-picked wildflowers to personalized notes, the smallest gestures can lead to the biggest effects. To a resident who feels disconnected and uninspired, getting a heartfelt greeting card can make him or her feel noticed, special and worthy of love.

We’re dealing with unique circumstances when it comes to learning how to effectively balance the social needs of senior living community residents and the desire to keep them protected. With a little creativity, compassion and empathy, leaders can help staff members find impactful ways to reconnect with older residents and beat the loneliness epidemic.

This article was originally published in McKnight’s Senior Living.

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