If you’ve been paying attention to the news, or are just a consumer of popular culture, you know that loneliness is now considered a major public health problem. In a bit of irony, it seems the more “connected” we are as a culture, the more many of us feel alone and unfriended. And this feeling of being alone is particularly endemic among older adults. New research from the University of Michigan reports that one in three older adults say they lack regular companionship and people who report poor physical or mental health are more likely to report these feelings of loneliness. We also now know there’s a definite link between chronic loneliness and such health problems as diminished cognition, memory loss or even shorter life spans.
Recently, agebuzz founder Connie Zuckerman sat down with Hope Reiner, the founder of the New York City-based entity, Hope and I, an agency that provides authentic friendship for older adults who are lonely, suffering from dementia or otherwise isolated due to such health conditions as sight or hearing impairment, general depression or social anxiety. Through her expertise and experience working with this group of adults, Hope is uniquely positioned to comment on the burden of loneliness as well as strategies she has developed to stimulate loving and nurturing relationships. Below is an excerpt of the conversation:
CZ: Hope, your work at Hope and I feels so unique and important at this moment in time. Can you tell us how you got started? What was your motivation for wanting to work with older people who are alone?
HR: Growing up, I had two wonderful grandparents and I was sensitive to seniors and their situation even as a young child. While my early professional work was in the art world and later I had a career in magazine publishing, I always had empathy and compassion for older individuals which I initially channeled into volunteer work.
During my magazine career, I realized that what I really wanted to do was help older adults. I interviewed Robert Butler (the professional who coined the term “ageism”) while I worked at Longevity magazine and I began to volunteer at places like JASA (where I was honored as “volunteer of the year”). I also began to get training to work with older people. I received certification as a geriatric care manager through Brookdale Center on Healthy Aging and I became a certified Dementia Care Specialist. But it was only when my mother died (I cared for her for many years while she had dementia) that I realized my true calling. Nobody visited my mother, and those few friends who came were extremely uncomfortable. They would never look at her. I realized I wanted to bring love and joy and engagement to people who were like my mother.
CZ: When did you start Hope and I? And what kinds of services do you provide?
HR: I started Hope and I (originally called “Hope Cares”) about 9 years ago. I realized that my life’s work is helping older people one-on-one, so that’s what I have dedicated myself to. From the beginning, I’ve always had clients and no client is typical: every person is a different person and the services I provide completely depend on the person whom I’m serving. I start from wherever the person is and I connect with attention and affection. I find so many people are starved of affection. I don’t care if a client can do a puzzle or remember what day it is. What’s important to me is that they feel good, and cared about and loved. When a person feels love, it changes everything.
With me, it’s all about connection. I provide a genuine and authentic connection with each client and my goal is to be a true friend, and also, if possible, to improve a person’s cognition.
People are capable of doing many many things, no matter their diagnosis or condition. When I get a new client (which often comes from word of mouth) I ask as many questions as I can and I listen to them. Sometimes I just sit at their bedside and we talk and laugh; sometimes we go out to do an activity that they enjoy, such as an opera or a dance performance. I’ve taken clients to doctor’s appointments, out to lunch and even to a country home for a weekend. When a family member contacts me, I do a thorough assessment to see what would be best for this unique person. I can spend as little as an hour a week with a client or many hours a week. I’ve even spent many days traveling with clients.
While there are lots of companions working these days, what I bring to my relationships with my clients is not only my love and connection but my professional training. And I’m also a peer. I’m 74 myself, so I often have the same frame of reference as my clients. In essence, what they get from me is a companion plus. It’s really a friendship in every way. With me, they have a loyal, authentic friend but they also benefit from my skills and expertise.
CZ: What kind of results have you seen working with your clients?
HR: I work with many of my clients for years and it’s remarkable what can happen. I recently had a client, a woman with dementia whom I see every week, say to me, “Hope, you open up new doors.” And that’s truly what I feel. There’s a lot of life to be lived between a dementia diagnosis and the end of someone’s life. I want to prove that if people feel this loving connection, they can flourish.
I’ve even had my work included in a newly published book providing strategies for dealing with socially isolated older adults. My chapter is entitled “Friend Power: A View From The Front Lines” and in this chapter I provide advice and strategies that other professionals and caregivers can use when working with older adults with dementia or disability.
I try to be careful about how I spend money but you’d be amazed how you can make anything fun. I plug into what the client wants to do and is able to do.
I’m also now involved in a pilot project up in Maine to see how a long term care facility can better integrate into their setting the type of one-on-one connection that I bring to my work.
CZ: What have you learned from your years of spending time with isolated and lonely older adults, especially those with dementia? What advice can you share for family members grappling with the challenge of caring for loved ones who are lonely or isolated?
HR: I truly believe it’s the most unfortunate part of our culture, that people don’t realize that no matter a person’s situation or frailty, a person is always a person and is deserving of love and affection. So that’s the first lesson. The second is that you have to meet people wherever they are. They may not remember your name or talk a lot, but you can still make a meaningful connection. Third, you have to understand that it’s not about you. Rather, you need to understand the person you’re dealing with- and make a connection. And of course, there are simple things that go a long way. For example, never stand behind a person with dementia when speaking to them- always make direct eye contact.
CZ: Hope, I know that many readers will want to learn more about your work and get in touch with you for their loved ones. What’s the best way to do that?
HR: The best way to reach me is through my website, Hope and I. You’ll find all my contact information there and come to understand that I’m always available, seven days a week. And while I’m based in New York City, I can travel and work with clients outside of the area, depending on the client’s needs. This is my passion and my life’s calling and I love my work.