What is meant by the term “social isolation” in Alzheimer’s disease or dementia?

The individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia slowly loses his/her memory. Subtle personality changes are observed by friends and family.

Depression looms. The affected individual forgets names of longtime friends and no longer feels comfortable in engaging in social situations. These declining issues lead to isolation, which is detrimental to the quality of life of an individual with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

About 40 percent of individuals with dementia feel they are excluded from everyday life, according to the 2012 World’s Alzheimer’s Report. Social isolation is not only an outcome from the individual’s disease progression, but perhaps more so because of the stigma attached to the disease.

Once diagnosed, many individuals are fearful of the reactions of others and often have a sense of shame and low self-esteem. They feel their status within society has been a result of the diagnosis.

For instance, a diagnosis of cancer usually spurs an onset of concern from family and friends, with follow-up calls and offers of help and support. With a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, however, family and friends are unsure how to react, are often misinformed about the disease and feel there is not much to do in terms of help and support.

The connection and personal relationship they once had with the affected individual drastically changes, and slowly, they fade, leaving that individual socially isolated.

The stigma of the disease promotes social exclusion and also tends to focus on the disease itself, instead of the affected individual’s remaining strengths and abilities.

The misguided idea that nothing can be done to assist people with Alzheimer’s or dementia often leads to hopelessness and frustration.

But this need not be the case. Social isolation can be curtailed by reducing the stigma of the disease through greater awareness and education, by providing more programs and services to promote social engagement and mental stimulation and by affording caregivers the help they need.

Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia disorder? Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, Director of Services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494, advice@alzbr.org, or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.