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Loneliness Mistaken for Dementia in Elderly Population

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By News release • • May 8, 2000

Most people are aware of the physical losses that accompany old age, but many don’t realize that older adults also can experience a loss of communication that is just as debilitating as any physical ailment.

In recognition of National Better Hearing and Speech Month, UA professor of communication disorders Barbara Shadden reveals that America’s older population is being silenced — not by illness or physical impediment but by the social stigmas associated with growing old.

"The ability to communicate is not enough. People also need opportunities to communicate and partners who are actively engaged in the conversation," said Shadden, who also co-directs the UA Center for Aging Studies. "For older adults, these latter two conditions become increasingly hard to find."

In other words, just as people reach an age when their life experiences afford them valuable perspectives, their ability to pass on words of wisdom may become impaired. This increased desire to communicate, coupled with an inability to do so, can lead to grave mental and physical consequences.

Individuals who feel cut off from normal society experience loneliness and depression, but this is by no means the worst risk associated with lack of communication, said Shadden. Lack of social contact and sensory stimulus can cause some older individuals to become paranoid, hostile, even delusional — the very same symptoms used to identify senile dementia.

"I have no doubt that there are people in retirement homes and assisted living facilities who have been written off as senile when actually all they need is a more stimulating environment — people to talk to, activities that engage them," Shadden said. "Some dementia-like conditions can be reversible if we recognize that it’s happening."

Such dire consequences make it surprising that so little effort is devoted to improving communication as people age. The problem, said Shadden, is that many different elements conspire to silence older adults.

One-third of adults 65 and older suffer from some form of communication disorder. But even those who are perfectly healthy and capable may face social obstacles that can leave them speechless.

Naturally, as people age, their social circles diminish. Children and grandchildren move away. Retirement heralds a loss of professional colleagues. Spouses and friends succumb to health problems or vanish into nursing homes. As a result, older individuals often have fewer people to talk to — particularly people who know them well.

Additionally, older people tend to get confined within their own age group. As they themselves move into retirement communities and nursing homes, some find that their fellow residents are physically or mentally incapable of providing stimulating conversation.

Such circumstances are often an inevitable aspect of aging. However, senior citizens find themselves further debilitated by the social stigmas that Americans associate with old age. Stereotypes enable us to disregard elderly adults as sweet but helpless — incapable of complex thought or action and therefore unworthy of conversation, said Shadden.

"A large part of the American population talks to older adults like they’re not independent human beings but as though they’re damaged goods," she said. "To have people condescend just because you have gray hair — that’s an incredibly isolating experience."

According to Shadden, people need to remember that most older individuals are alert and intelligent, and that it’s not acceptable to assume they are debilitated simply because of their age.

Furthermore, she hopes people of all ages will make an effort to converse with their older acquaintances — and not just about the weather. Many people treat senior citizens like strangers, Shadden said, discussing only the most inane subjects. Such conversations fail to satisfy either party.

"The funny thing is that we tend to initiate these meaningless conversations with our parents and grandparents — the people we know most intimately and with whom we should hold the deepest exchanges," she said.

Encouraging older people to talk about their true interests and activities will result in a more enjoyable conversation. Furthermore, such lively discussion and interaction can help older adults retain their mental capacities because it forces them to think, react and respond to complex issues.

Such stimulation keeps senior citizens mentally engaged and active, resulting in higher quality of life. It can also lead younger people to a greater appreciation of their elders and thus forge a stronger bond between generations.

"Our inner thoughts and minds are what really define us as people, and they’re also what really link us to each other as human beings. That’s the basis for interpersonal, emotional intimacy," said Shadden. "If you can’t communicate, how can you connect with other people on that most basic and intimate level?"

Source: News release from The University of Arkansas

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