In this article, I aim to dig into a concerning yet often overlooked issue—an epidemic silently affecting our elderly population. In our fast-paced, urban-centric lifestyles, the elderly often find themselves inadvertently left behind, facing isolation and neglect. Despite our best intentions, their limited mobility and declining physical health contribute to their increasing isolation, gradually distancing them from the very communities they helped shape.
Loneliness, a complex emotional state
Loneliness is more than just feeling alone; it’s a profound sense of disconnection that can make people feel empty and isolated, regardless of age. It’s a universal experience that can affect anyone, with serious impacts on mental and physical health. Loneliness isn’t solely about being socially isolated; factors like social skills, introversion, and mental health issues can exacerbate it. Even in our digital age, where social media is meant to connect us, it can ironically contribute to loneliness by promoting unrealistic standards and cyberbullying. Addressing loneliness requires empathy, genuine connections, inclusive communities, and mental health awareness, going beyond just increasing social interactions.
Speaking of inclusivity, it’s important to note that loneliness doesn’t discriminate based on age. It’s not an emotion confined to the young; adults, including our parents and grandparents, can also be profoundly affected by loneliness.
Unfortunately, our elders often choose not to voice their struggles or needs, fearing they might burden their families. Instead, they adopt a passive approach, hoping their challenges will resolve themselves. This neglect of their emotional and psychosocial needs drives them deeper into isolation, a path they might not even realize they’re treading.
One of the most devastating consequences of prolonged loneliness is the contemplation of ending one’s life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 700,000 people worldwide died by suicide in 2019, with a staggering 77% of these cases occurring in low and middle-income countries. Alarmingly, more than half of these suicides involve individuals below the age of 50. The incidence of suicide among elders is also significant.
Certain factors heighten the chances of loneliness and isolation: older age, particularly those who are 85 and over; being single, living alone, or residing in rural areas. Depression and anxiety contribute, and surprisingly, lower education and income also pose risks. Moreover, men, individuals with disabilities, caregivers, LGBTQ+ individuals, and marginalized groups encounter increased vulnerability to loneliness and isolation.https://healthsciences.arizona.edu/news/blog/loneliness-6-things-know-might-save-life
Needs beyond the government’s “ayuda“
In the Philippines, seniors, typically aged 60 and above, often have their mental and emotional well-being overlooked by society. There’s a prevailing notion that elders are solely focused on surviving day-to-day life, ensuring they have food on the table and necessary medicines by their bedside.
To address elder care, the government has implemented various interventions. These include the social protection program aimed at alleviating old-age poverty, such as PhilHealth coverage, a monthly pension of Php500 (about US$10) for indigent senior citizens, applicable pensions, seniors’ ID for discounts on essential goods and services, and the Centenarian Act of 2016. This act provides a cash gift of Php100,000 (approximately US$2000) to centenarians, individuals reaching their 100th birthday. Additionally, legislation such as House Bill 7030 in 2019 has been enacted to safeguard elders against all forms of abuse.
However, many assume that as long as the government ensures economic welfare through pensions, assistance, discounts, and medical care, the elders are adequately supported.
However, these measures fall short. Our elders require not just economic support but also interaction and a sense of belonging – the assurance that they still hold significance within their families and communities.
According to a study titled “Ageing and Health in the Philippines,” published in 2019 by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) and the Demographic Research and Development Foundation, Inc., loneliness, social isolation, and dissatisfaction with life among older Filipinos are relatively uncommon. The study reveals that 75% of seniors rarely or never experience a lack of companionship. Approximately 10% of seniors express a consistent or frequent need for more companionship, while 7% feel left out in various situations, and 6% often perceive isolation from others.
Regarding social isolation, the findings indicate that 27% of seniors have limited connections with family and friends. This translates to nearly 3 in 10 seniors having fewer than two relatives or friends fulfilling social integration roles. Despite this, a vast majority of older Filipinos express satisfaction with their lives, with only 6% reporting dissatisfaction. Notably, life satisfaction doesn’t significantly differ across sexes and ages.
When elders get sick
How familiar are the tales of elderly parents abandoned by their own kin once they fall ill or become immobile? The more they struggle to care for themselves, the more they seem to be disregarded. How often have we heard of elders being shuffled around among their children, none willing to shoulder the responsibility of caring for their aging parents?
The ERIA study highlights that care for ailing elders or parents often falls on the shoulders of a more capable spouse or a child. The findings reveal that roughly 6 out of 10 males identify their spouse as their primary caregiver, while 38% of females mention a daughter in that role. Among male seniors, the spouse and daughter are commonly reported as providing long-term care, whereas for female seniors, it’s mostly a daughter.
When asked about their preferred caregivers in scenarios involving dementia, bedridden states, or invalidity, elders most frequently mention a daughter, followed by the spouse and a son. This underscores that, for Filipino seniors, the responsibility of long-term care predominantly falls on women within the family.
Mental health and suicidal thoughts
The global demographic landscape is progressively aging. In 2020, 1 billion people globally were 60 or older. By 2030, the senior population is projected to reach 1.4 billion, equating to one in six individuals worldwide.
Fast-forwarding to 2050, this group is anticipated to double, reaching a striking 2.1 billion, with the 80-and-above demographic expected to triple to 426 million. Amid this shift, loneliness and social isolation among older adults emerge as pivotal risk factors for later-life mental health issues. (Source: WHO – Mental Health of Older Adults).
Yes, our elders also grapple with mental health issues, and as a result, the incidence of suicide among older adults arises from intricate emotional and physical challenges. Depression, often triggered by profound losses such as bereavement or the decline in physical health and independence, significantly precedes suicidal thoughts in this demographic. Particularly alarming is the disproportionately high suicide rate among older men, especially those aged 80 and above. For these individuals, enduring chronic pain, increasing dependence on others, and feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and a fading sense of purpose exacerbate their vulnerability.
The absence of social connections can greatly impact both physical and mental well-being, increasing the chances of various health issues like cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Those with limited social connections face a 30% higher risk of premature mortality, akin to well-known risks like smoking, excessive drinking, or obesity.https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/it-s-time-to-harness-the-power-of-connection-for-our-health-and-well-being
This combination of risk factors amplifies the likelihood of suicidal ideation or attempts among older adults. While some factors might be manageable with intervention and support, others, such as the complexity of certain health conditions and emotional isolation, pose immense challenges for individuals and their families. Addressing this issue necessitates not just mental health support but also a holistic approach tackling broader societal factors affecting older adults facing such daunting challenges (Source: Late-life suicide in an aging world).
Cases of so-called ‘silent suicide,’ like voluntary stopping eating and drinking (VSED), often go unrecorded as suicides, despite fulfilling the definition of an intention to die. VSED, where individuals consciously refuse all sustenance to hasten death, constitutes a deliberate suicide attempt, not merely a consequence of terminal conditions.https://www.nature.com/articles/s43587-021-00160-1)
Your love, their lifeline
For those with elderly family members, fostering a sense of purpose in their lives involves attending to their needs, emotions, and presence. While raising awareness about the risk factors and suicidal tendencies in old age is essential, individual efforts must also come into play within our homes, family circles, and communities. Often, family discord arises from past traumas or dysfunctional relationships, requiring us to rise above pride, pain, and animosity to heal and mend familial ties.
The commitment to caring for our elderly parents and family members should not waver. Ensuring they feel valued and essential can be immensely beneficial, offering solace amid the challenges of aging.
Though our elders may not vocalize their needs, making them aware that they are not burdens can provide comfort amidst the pains and anxieties they endure. Engaging with them through conversation, physical affection, and undivided attention is crucial while they still recognize us and can communicate. This proactive approach helps create an environment where they feel cherished and supported.
Lastly, be compassionate toward your elder family members. Never dismiss their hints about their feelings, nor belittle their complaints. If their behavior shifts unexpectedly, moving from mild-mannered to irritable, avoid scolding or giving them the cold shoulder. Instead, inquire about the reasons behind the change.
Listen attentively to their stories about their past glories, showing pride in their triumphs, and offering support when they share their failures. Act as their advocate, ensuring their needs are met and never abandoning them.
Be their faithful support, remaining by their side through thick and thin.
I miss you mom….
Prayer for Blessing of Grandparents
Lord God almighty, bless our grandparents with long life, happiness, and health. May they remain constant in your love and be living signs of your presence to their children and grandchildren. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Source: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception)
As God said in Isaiah 46:4 – “Even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray, I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”