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Self-Care Solace: Nurturing Wellness and Combating Loneliness

The holidays are almost over and the hustle and bustle of the season is coming to a close. The increased interactions with loved ones will soon be replaced with regular routines and much less social engagement.  It is an opportune time to shed some light on the challenges faced by those grappling with loneliness, particularly the elderly. For many, interactions are limited to the family member or friend that is providing care - the extraordinary individuals known as informal caregivers.

In 2020, there were over 53 million informal caregivers in the United States, constituting more than one in six Americans. These caregivers, defined as those providing unpaid comfort and care to family and friends, face various negative consequences, including mental health disorders, financial burdens, and compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue, the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of caring for others, manifests in feelings of helplessness, reduced empathy, and overwhelming exhaustion. As informal caregivers often serve as the sole contact for elderly loved ones, addressing their stress and feelings is crucial to combating loneliness. Recognizing that these challenges are normal, there are proven ways to alleviate compassion fatigue:

  • Take time away from caregiving (mentally and physically)
  • Utilize a support system; get someone to step in to give a much-needed break
  • Engage in regular exercise
  • Ensure adequate sleep
  • Pursue your own hobbies and interests
  • Seek support from friends or therapists
  • Join a caregiver support group

To quote Eleanor Brown, "When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel."

Another facet of self-care is acknowledging and identifying loneliness. Loneliness is characterized by the absence of meaningful relationships and is categorized into three stages: emotional, social, and existential. Recent research highlights loneliness as a significant risk factor for the elderly, comparable to or exceeding the risks of smoking and obesity. Health issues such as dementia, Alzheimer's, heart disease and stroke are associated with loneliness in older individuals. Combatting loneliness requires intentional efforts, and here are a few suggestions you can try:

  • Smile, even if it feels difficult
  • Invite friends for tea or coffee
  • Maintain contact through phone calls and text messages
  • Embrace technology to connect with others through email and social media
  • Participate in local community activities (many are free)
  • Keep a journal
  • Be active
  • Help others

While the internet is often criticized, it can be a powerful tool to combat loneliness. Online platforms offer opportunities for virtual face-to-face interactions, fostering connections that are as fulfilling as in-person relationships. Suggestions for utilizing the internet include:

  • Social media participation in groups and chats
  • Online games, especially with grandchildren or nieces/nephews
  • Sharing knowledge online, such as creating family trees
  • Engaging in hobbies, like amateur detective work or crafting
  • Teaching others through online forums and discussions

It is crucial to prioritize internet safety and security, though. Educate yourself and your loved ones on safe internet use, particularly when dealing with online payment services like PayPal or Venmo. Caregivers can play a vital role in teaching safe internet practices to those they care for.

So, during these cold winter months, remember to extend kindness, express gratitude for your blessings, and reach out to those in need. Not only will this be good for your own well-being, but you never know the positive impact that it could make on the well-being of someone else who may be lonely or struggling.

Mike Gipson, LMSW has many varied life experiences that led him to switch careers mid-life. He was a successful general manager of food service concepts when he went back to school to study Psychology. Mike received his BA, Summa Cum Laude, in Psychology from Purdue University Global and his Masters of Social Work from Walden University. He has been in the mental health field for over six years, joining the Brook Lane team in 2022. He splits his time between community outreach at Horizon Goodwill's Health Hub in downtown Hagerstown and providing telehealth therapy services for Brook Lane. Mike is now an informal caregiver for his wife, who suffers from liver failure.