Supporting older loved ones this Christmas
Updated: Jul 25
The pandemic has affected those over 65 not just by placing them into an 'at risk' group, but with measures such as lockdown, affecting their ordinary avenues of social support. It is also not that they struggle with understanding technology as communication moves online, but aging joints, physical stress and even impaired vision or hearing can play a part in reluctance to engage, and that's before we consider the difference between a computer image and being there in person to see, hold and touch makes.
In a previous article, I mentioned Juan Mann one of the first pioneers of the “Free Hugs” movement about whom Dr Kory Floyd wrote, using the term “Skin Hunger” to describe the feeling of touch deprivation and the human need for physical contact, which he found correlated with lower levels of happiness, higher reports of depression and stress, as well as lower social support. While wellbeing and friendships are correlated, Floyd's work reflected the more causal relationship between touch and development also shown in very research conducted in the early 1900s where it was noted that babies in orphanages who received less touch became sick and some never recovered.
However, before making any broad brush claims, it is notable that the word "correlation" rather than "cause" is used in Floyd’s research is key because it might be that the reports of anxiety or depression were related to the lack of social contact – which will automatically result in less physical contact with other humans…and so skin hunger can only be related to negative emotions rather than being a clear precipitator.
But touch is only one of the elements to be aware of when it comes to building and maintaining our relationships especially when it comes to the added changes that age can bring.
Our cognitive relationship
1. Remember that aging parents or older relatives have pride and dignity, and don't want to be thought of as incapable. So be mindful of the language you use in supporting them - at one point they may have brought you up. Have conversations, ask what they would find helpful and then be prepared to do, listen or negotiate - you don't ask someone for their thoughts only to get validation for yours.
Loneliness and its effects
2. Loneliness, which has huge effects on our mental health can be something we don't realise is being felt. If you have time and that relationship with your neighbours, check in on them. If concerned about older loved ones, encourage them towards what GPs can 'Social prescribing' - getting them involved in community groups, but if these are going to be on zoom, make sure they have the technology and the know how, which will make them feel more motivated to join in.
A "lovely gift" needs to be fit for purpose
3. Make sure your interventions are 'fit for purpose' - so if you're encouraging loved ones to 'eat more fruit' - you may need to be mindful of changing dietary needs eg. My 80 year old dad is both diabetic and pre-dialysis so foods and treats need to suit both low sugar and a renal diet. This goes for any care packages you may be sending if you can't be there in person.
Notice changes - especially as older loved ones often "don't want to be a bother"
4. Something common to myself and many friends supporting
aging parents (and one of them with children commented it's strange to be at the age where two sets of people at both ends of the age scale depend on you) is that sometimes parents hide things from us, and related to that they may not even realise changes are anything to worry about. Be aware of changes to baseline behaviour and, especially when GPs are being asked to reduce routine monitoring to roll out the vaccine, if you are worried, seek and insist on help.
"The parent who has everything"...Practical gifts are still gifts...they make LIFE easier!!
5. Gifts that can be nice are things that make their practical life easier - for a parent struggling with holding a mug, there are 2 handled ones which don't look like medical help! Also you can get a sensor for a visually impaired parent which goes off when the water line is passed for pouring liquids - look into what the services offer as specific gifts to assist with practical tasks - often we don't realise until we make those little adaptations how much we needed them. Something I have noticed personally is that because I am so familiar with using google to search for items, it is incredibly easy for me to stumble across innovations by simply having a look at key words such as "Help for diabetics" or "Support visual impairment"...it's hard to find what you don't know you're looking for, so a younger relative's internet savvy can really be a bonus.
Respect changes in social preferences
6. Respect people's social boundaries - with lockdown making us a little more exhausted faster (many of us are out of practice with our social calendar) - if people are tired, let them rest, and always ask are you persuading someone to do something for you or for them. The "perfect" Christmas, or event, isn't always about meticulous planning, nor catering to every whim, but being accepting and keeping communications open.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt