The new year has started, and you have been inundated with New Year wishes. What do the wishes say? Happiness, prosperity and maybe success.
But when it comes to our parents, our wishes are slightly different. We ask for extending the fleeting time that they have with us. We ask for their good health and longevity. Each of us, in our own way and faith, ask for the very same thing.
And what about resolutions? Have you made any? Just read through your resolutions again. Do you have any that include your parents? Not too likely. I did a quick dipstick survey at work and an google search on celebrity resolutions as well as some resolutions of the professors of my Alma mater, Columbia University. Parents did not figure in the list which included exercise, learning new languages and travelling the world. But then how does it really matter – most resolutions have a shelf life of a few weeks at the most.
Resolutions? Nah! Promises? Nah! But something better…
In this article, I will attempt to impress upon you that your parent’s health and longevity can be bettered by a version of a resolution. It’s actually more than a resolution. It’s even more than a promise or a commitment. A better term would be a pledge.
For prayers may be good for those who believe, and not the others (that debate is not mine to make here). But what if I told you that there is a simpler and scientific way that could help you achieve the same goals? What if I told you that a lot of what you ask for is in your hands? And what if I could impress upon you that a simple pledge could substantially reverse ageing and improve the mental and physical health of your parents?
It all starts from a simple pledge that you could undertake, from where ever you are. And which can still fit into your busy life and packed schedule.
Introduction to a silent killer
But first, before I tell you what that simple pledge is, let me talk about a silent killer amongst the elderly. A fundamental problem that is more debilitating than most of the common physical ailments. If you are thinking chronic deceases like diabetes, heart problem or chronic depression, I have to point in another direction.
Physical problems have physical remedies –at least that is the general belief and mostly holds true. Pop a pill a day, eat less, lose weight, and get a bypass. Diagnosing a problem is usually easy, sometimes as simple as a blood test. This in turn l leads to a follow up doctor visit, a prescription, and a series of treatment related actions. The actions may include a lot of conservative treatment and sometimes surgery. Physical problems are easier to diagnose, put a label on, and then treat. Doctors too will tell you that chronic issues usually can be kept at bay or managed by lifestyle changes like diet control and exercise.
If not physical problems, your mind will immediately leap to the other aspect of health issues – mental well-being. And you are partly right, but yet not so. I am not talking about the usual series of medically recognized mental health issues, such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and chronic depression. Some are genetic, and others managed by medication. Ailments like dementia can also be slowed down. Research says that being mentally active till old age is a good way to slacken the progress of dementia.
Just recently, an elderly but sprightly doctor, over 80 years old, spoke to me at length about how he plans to work as long as he could. And I applaud him. I wonder on the causal relationship though – does the job keep him sprightly or is he keeping his job as he is genetically predisposed to be sprightly. Research tells me it is the job that keeps him so.
Silence, like a cancer, grows
However, the issue that I am going to talk about is different – it’s social. In the internet era, the term ‘social’ has taken on a totally new form.’ Social’ is indeed good – Facebook and Instagram connect people like nothing ever did.
But when I talk about ‘social’, it’s the lack thereof that is the killer. And it has a name that we recognise very well – Loneliness.
Loneliness and Social Isolation
Research says that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (God forbid, if you are lonely and a smoker!). In my Elder Care start-up, we care for hundreds of elders. Most live alone, and it’s a complex weave of circumstances, health and disposition that have pushed them into their being lonely. The usual reasons of loneliness are:
Kids leaving home to study and work.
Death of a spouse or partner.
Loss of friends and close relatives who they could speak with.
Living in a house on the upper floor without a lift. Neither can the elderly come down, nor can her friends go up.
Transportation challenges – Elders aren’t too Uber friendly.
Lack of mobility, and therefore the ability to pick up a phone or meet up with people to talk to.
Anxiety of being able to manage themselves – be it the fear of falling or incontinence.
Endemic – it’s in my family
I know of one case, where the elderly lady, who is over 80 years old, lives on the fourth floor of a walk up. The last time she was down was when she had a surgery. Her son who used to visit every afternoon has reduced his visits to 3 times a week as he, in his 60s and arthritic, finds it difficult to climb up the stairs.
My own mother is averse to leaving her flat. On the days that we ask her to come with us for a ‘day out’, she complains of headache. Its not the headache, but the anxiety of finding her shoes, and coordinating her clothes. Staying home is so much easier. But once she is out, she is cheerful and happy
Pandemic – UK Prime Minister is bothered too
And when I talk to many of the kids who entrust the care of their parents to us, I realise that the problem is widespread. I don’t have figures for India, but in the UK, more that 2 Million people over the age of 75 live alone. That is about 2% of their population, of which more than a million say they go over a month without speaking to anyone – family, friends or neighbours.
The situation is not as stark in India, as there are more maids and home help. But the quality of the conversations suffers, especially with kids far away, and grand kids, even when they are close to their grandparents, are too busy glued to their phones and WhatsApp. An octogenarian senior but retired bureaucrat has a live-in maid, but told me that he is extremely lonely as he cannot talk with anyone about anything of importance. His only source of comfort is the TV and his morning newspaper.
So how does loneliness impact the elderly? Is it the root cause?
Funnily enough, it impacts health the most.
1. Loneliness increases Mortality and exacerbates chronic issues are exacerbated
In a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, they corelate social isolation with mortality. The reason isn’t explicitly stated. One possible explanation could be that friends and family can address any health issues quickly and then take action. It’s not enough to ensure that the diagnosis is made, but in addition that there is proper adherence to the treatment plan.
I had spoken to a renowned geriatric doctor in Kolkata a few years back, and he said that he doesn’t like treating the parents of the visiting kids as they take, they get their parents checked and take the doctor’s advice. However, they do not have any method to ensure that the advice is consistently being followed – thus leading to chronic issues becoming acute problems. Therefore, it seems that social isolation does negatively impact chronic diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure and heart ailments.
2. Loneliness can negatively affect both physical and mental health.
Numerous studies have also shown that loneliness affects mental well-being, and increases depression, pessimism and suicidal tendencies. And not having a strong social network, contributes in cognitive decline which leads to early onset of dementia.
In addition, studies have shown that mental health is directly corelated with physical health.
Further co-morbidity is the killer – loneliness leading to cognitive decline, leading to depression, leading to not getting out of the home, leading to lack of exercise and possible weight gain, which leads to knee problems and so on…the downward spiral starts, with no end in sight.
3. Loneliness leads to life threatening behaviour
It’s common for loneliness leading to pessimism which in turn leads to life threatening behaviour. For example, an elderly diabetic person may just disregard his health, eat chocolates and sweets, and say to you “I have just a few years remaining – why would you stop me now?” Similarly, COPD patients who smoke in spite of having an oxygen concentrator attached to their nose do not really care.
A Global problem – tea parties and trips, students and elders, you and me
I could go into the research aspects a lot more in details, and flesh out all the issues surrounding loneliness. But for that there are wonderful articles on the internet. Government agencies and private enterprises are grappling with this huge and fairly complex social problem. The company that I co-founded organises certain initiatives like tea parties, short day trips and elder/student meets. These are steps in the right direction, but to alleviate this problem we need help from everyone.
So, what Is It That You Could Do?
I will give you an idea – this silver bullet that wouldn’t solve the social isolation of all the elders in the world, but can help in reducing the loneliness of your parents or grandparents.
Just take a pledge. One tiny and easy pledge that will give you structure and make a difference.
And again, why do I use the word pledge?
Because making a pledge is non-negotiable, and more importantly it focuses on an action or outcome. It’s very different from a resolution, in which you resolve to do something, or determine a course of action. In a pledge, you are making a vow to yourself and others to complete what you promise.
But what pledge should I take?
I will suggest that you take an easy pledge. Just pick up your phone and speak to your parents – once everyday, for every day of your life. Even if its for 5 minutes. Do something that is a little more than what you are doing today. For example,
– If you live in a different city from your parents, take the pledge to talk to your parents once every day.
– And if you have kids, make them take a pledge to talk to their grandparents once a week – maybe on skype.
– If you live in the same city as your parents, take the pledge to talk to them every day and visit them at least once a week. This is the pledge that I have kept for over a year.
These may help in making your parent/s less socially isolated. Just know that for @home elders, phone calls and visits can be a critical part of connecting with loved ones.
But how do you keep a pledge? Three tips to make it easy
Resolutions dissolve in a few days, but a pledge can stay on for a long time. To do it like a pro there are some simple tips
1. Make your pledge simple and doable.
It has to be something that you can fit into your life and be consistent about. It’s easier to buy a dumbbell for home, and exercise with it consistently everyday than to get a gym membership that you use infrequently for the extra travel you have to do.
2. Make your pledge public.
Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your parents, tell your kids to remind you when you aren’t doing it. Keep a log over the kitchen counter, and get a tattoo on your dog’s nose (your cat would just slap you). Get Alexa and Google to remind you if the dog protests. But make it public.
3. Make the pledge an habit
And the most important and useful tip I can give is to make the pledge into a habit. There are wonderful books on how habits can improve your life, and I have adapted some of those learning into habits. Read this article on how calling your mom can be made into a habit
The Pledge: 5 Minutes/Everyday
Life has evolved over the last few decades, and kids are leaving home and moving to other countries in droves. This is probably the first generation of parents who will live, longer, but away from their children, in their old age. This is also one of the early generation of kids who will have access to affordable communication devices that were not available even one generation back. The phone is in near your hands, and the only change required is your intentions. As a very dear friend used to say to me. “If it is important you will find a way, if not you will find an excuse!”What is your excuse?
So Take the Pledge – 5 Minutes a day – every day of your life.
It could save your mother’s life.
If you do take the pledge, leave me a message at the bottom of this article. Let me know how it’s working. Maybe you will spread the word to one of your colleagues, or a stranger, and an elderly person somewhere in the world will have someone to talk to today.
“Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you”, But my words like silent raindrops fell, And echoed in the wells of silenceSimon & Garfunkel
Topics and Links
- UK Government strategy on Loneliness – somewhere there is the the comparison of loneliness and cigarettes
- The Elder Care Start-up I co-founded – https://www.tribecacare.com/
- Links to the tea parties and short trips that we organise in Kolkata
- Press article on Elder training on technology + Elder/Kids meetings.