‘Shrinking World Syndrome’ – how to kick against it!

Shrinking World Syndrome

Anyone who has ever been involved in the life of an elderly friend or relative, may have noticed this person, whom they care about very much, is slowly allowing many aspects of their previously rich life to disappear. Common examples of this disturbing behaviour include: cancelling the weekend newspaper (“it’s too ‘big’ for me to manage.”), giving away cherished objects (“I don’t have space for them.”), reducing phone contact with friends (“I’ve got nothing to say to them.”), or turning down invitations to social gatherings and club outings (“I can’t be bothered with them.”).

While there may be understandable reasons for this pattern of behaviour (which often builds on itself), it is also possible it is not logical, and should be fought against for the good of the person themselves. Understandable reasons for an older person’s world ‘shrinking’ can include health limitations – sometimes reduced mobility means it is just too difficult to carry out all the social commitments once enjoyed. The relinquishing of a driver’s licence can also make it more difficult to be active in the community, and even economic difficulties can be a reason for cutting back on discretionary expenditure such as a magazine, club, or internet subscriptions, or for selling one or two valuable but no-longer-required domestic items. We should never overlook the fact an older person has simply decided to abandon an aspect of their lifestyle because they want a change (something we are all entitled to do).

Where, as a friend or family member, we should have cause for concern, is when there seems to be no logical reason for our loved-one’s retreat from the world. Here, it pays to bear in mind, while many embrace growing older with gusto and a sense of adventure, others find the things they once took in their stride, can begin to feel overwhelming. This is especially the case when it comes to making decisions and trying anything new. And this is where we can help.

How to Kick Against It

First of all, don’t be afraid to gently express your concerns with your friend or family member. You can do this within the context of offering to assist. If, for instance, they are no longer going to meetings at night, do they need a ride, or encouragement to contact someone heading in the same direction who is willing to offer transport? If they are abandoning all their social meet-up opportunities, can a quiet conversation help them to choose one or two to quit, rather than taking a blanket approach and abandoning the lot? If energy levels are the problem, are there some tasks a family member or friend could assume that would free them up to enjoy the activities they want to (it may be time to check out some paid assistance in the form of a gardener or home-help, for instance)? If your friend appears to be divesting themselves of belongings you know they have cherished in the past, they may simply require some help to ‘put away’ a few items in higher shelves or a store cupboard so their environment no longer feels cluttered. If a family or friend gathering is being organised, accepting an invitation to stay overnight may make the difference to whether or not they feel able to attend.

The tendency to allow domestic and social worlds to shrink can strike all of us as we grow older, but unless we fight against it, both on behalf of our older friends and family – and ourselves – we rapidly face isolation, and the poor mental health that accompanies it. For the sake of those we love, and also for our own good, we must be brave, and embrace the old adage: ‘no pain, no gain,’ as a challenge we are proud to overcome.