Disrupt Everything: Home for the Holidays

December 15, 2017 • AARP, Columnists

I am very fortunate to work with so many talented AARP employees with amazing work and professional histories. I first met Scott over the summer, just weeks after he graduated from the University of Southern California with a master of social work degree, focusing on gerontology and mental health. During his time at USC, Scott interned at Providence TrinityCare Hospice and the USC Memory and Aging Center at the USC Keck School of Medicine. Over the past six months, Scott has helped me understand the role of a social worker as we age and the important role he or she plays as a part of the health care team.

— Ron Mori

By Scott Tanaka, AARP Project Coordinator and Guest Columnist

I am grateful to be able to share with you all a little bit about my background and passion for supporting our older adults. As Ron shared, I recently started working at AARP as a project coordinator in our multicultural leadership department. Prior to AARP and grad school, I worked in the accounting field. This would seem like a typical path for a fourth-generation Japanese American, but it wasn’t for me. So, you can imagine that it was a bit of a shock for my parents when I told them that I was leaving accounting to pursue social work. My parents, like many others, were not very familiar with what social workers actually do.

The National Association of Social Workers states, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.”

Social workers work with children, families, older adults, those with mental illness and those with chronic illnesses in a variety of settings including hospitals, schools, social service agencies, community centers, nursing homes, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and more.

Some of the most vulnerable in our society are our older adult population. People have often asked me why I chose to work with older adults because they think it’s unusual for a young person to want to do so. But I have always been very close with my grandparents, so it was only natural for me to do this work.

Getting back to the title of this article, with the holiday season well underway, many have plans to spend time with friends and family. For me, I will be heading back to Los Angeles for Christmas and New Year’s. I live in the Washington, D.C., area now, so it will be nice to be home for the holidays. I’m also looking forward to all the good Japanese/Hawaiian food in Torrance and Gardena!

Though the holidays are often when families get together, we have to remember those who do not have loved ones to spend time with or who have lost a loved one recently. Chronic isolation and loneliness especially applies to older adults.

Isolation Is More Than Being Alone

It’s the result of being disconnected from support groups of family, friends and community.

A number of factors may contribute to isolation: reduced mobility, hearing or vision loss, lack of access to affordable transportation, death of a spouse and more.

When setbacks hit, individually or in combination, vulnerable older adults can easily become homebound, detached, depressed … isolated.

Isolation has been shown to have a detrimental effect on health, especially for adults ages 50 and older. The health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Many of the normal processes and transitions that happen as we grow older — hearing loss, the deaths of spouses, partners and peers, impaired mobility — put us at increased risk for loneliness and isolation.

Although there are no visible “symptoms” of isolation, signals may include pronounced boredom, disinterest and withdrawal, declining personal hygiene, indications of poor eating and nutrition and notable home disrepair, clutter or hoarding.

During my internships, I saw the effects of loneliness and social isolation as described above. As a social worker, I would help my clients identify ways to increase their social activities by learning about their interests.

For example, one of my clients often wore a necklace that had a cross on it. I asked her about it, and she shared that church was an important part of her life, but she had not attended for a while because she, herself, was caring for a loved one. We discussed a few options, like working with our nursing agency to provide respite services on Sunday mornings so that she could attend church.

Respite is a service that brings in a nurse or another caregiver to provide a break to the primary caregiver, which is so important for those who are often providing care for a loved one 24/7. A social worker can help assess if you are eligible for respite services and help you access them.

There are other ways to increase social activity for older adults, such as checking out the local senior center or community center. Back home, we have the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, which provides activities for seniors such as bingo, arts and crafts, dancing, exercise classes and computer classes. Seniors can even buy bento lunches. Identifying these types of centers is something a social worker can help do for you.

Social workers can be found at senior centers, local social service agencies, hospitals and health clinics. You can give them a call and ask to speak to a social worker. If they are not able to assist you, they should be able to connect you with someone who can help.

What Can You Do?

Find a local senior center or community center to volunteer at. They are always looking for volunteers!

Prior to starting grad school, I visited older adults, who were often isolated, once a week just to provide a listening ear. Sometimes that is all they need — visit or call your older relative or friend if you haven’t talked to him or her for a while. Since I’m on the East Coast, I use FaceTime with my grandma, and that’s been a lot of fun.

The holiday season is a great time to do it, but consider connecting throughout the year as well. I bet you will find that you benefit from it, too!

 

Because the issue of social isolation is so complex, the AARP Foundation has spearheaded Connect2Affect, a platform to help end isolation and build the social connections older adults need in order to thrive. It is a collaborative effort, featuring tools and resources to help evaluate isolation risk and reach out to others who might be feeling lonely and disengaged.

Happy holidays from everyone at AARP!

Visit www.connect2affect.org for more details.

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