The Most Surprising Secret to Aging Well: Social Engagement
by Jullie Gray, MSW, LICSW, CMC
Ask anyone for their top advice about living a long, healthy life and you’ll probably hear tips about the importance of eating well, stopping smoking, exercising and getting regular medical checkups. Don’t throw those good habits out the window, but it may come as a shock to learn that connecting with others could be the single most important ingredient for aging well.
It’s true! Researchers have been studying the impact of social isolation and loneliness on health and wellbeing for many years. Over and over it has been proven that social support acts as a buffer against illness and cognitive decline. Loneliness and seclusion is thought to be as bad as or worse for your health than smoking, obesity or being an alcoholic. Put simply, loneliness breeds illness and early death.
How to spot problems
How can you tell if an older adult is at risk of isolation? There are telltale signs that may indicate a need for extra support:
- Living alone
- Family living at a distance
- Poor hearing and/or vision
- Memory loss or other cognitive problems
- Difficulty getting around (trouble walking, unable to drive or access transportation)
- Significant life changes such as the recent loss of a partner or moving to a new home
Protecting health by connecting
Why is being around others so important to wellbeing? Social connectedness increases resistance to disease. Older people who regularly interact with family, friends and participate in social activities report better emotional and physical health and show improvement performing some mental tasks. Those with strong social ties require less pain medication after surgery and recover more quickly. They also fall less often, are better nourished and have a lower risk of depression.
Contact with others can feed the spirit by bringing meaning and purpose to each day. It’s reciprocal – both parties benefit. Regardless of one’s age, when we are around others we give and receive support as well as hands-on assistance.
Tips for connecting
There are numerous ways older people can connect. Here are just a few:
- Visiting children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors
- Participating in faith activities, services, studies and social events
- Signing up for trips sponsored by local community centers
- Volunteering at schools, hospitals or local non-profit organizations
- Taking classes or attending lectures at local libraries, schools and other community venues
- Joining a book group or social club
These activities can help older adults develop deeper relationships with others who have similar interests and passions. They can expose them to new people, projects and ideas, and help foster confidence, and direction in their lives. If your dad becomes involved with a cause that is important, it helps him keep life in perspective and reminds him that he has a lot to offer the world.
What if your mother-in-law can’t get out anymore? Bring activities to her. Set up a schedule of visitors made up of family, friends or paid companions. Modify activities to match her abilities. Reach out to a professional to help design an individualized program if you don’t know what to do or have trouble implementing a plan.
Is there a downside?
Even though there is an undeniable connection between having robust social ties and good health, no single type of support is uniformly effective for all people and all situations. Unneeded or the wrong kind of help may reduce an older loved one’s sense of independence and self-esteem. Preventing them from doing things on their own can lead to a state of “learned helplessness” – loss of confidence and less willingness to try things independently.
Working with an expert
Aging Life Care Professionals (also known as a geriatric care managers) are trusted advisors who can thoroughly evaluate an individual’s situation and provide you with expert guidance about how to help:
- reduce social isolation
- provide just the right kind and right amount of help
- arrange individualized activities and companion services
- overcome barriers such as resistance to change
- open doors to possibilities you may never have imagined
An Aging Life Care Manager can also become your eyes and ears by:
- making regular visits to check in on your parent
- monitoring your parent’s health and addressing concerns when they arise
With the help of an Aging Life Care Manager you can more easily stay on top of your mom’s situation and rest a little easier knowing she is getting the vital support she needs.
To find your own professional advisor, go to www.aginglifecare.org and click on “Find an Expert”.
Jullie Gray is a Fellow of the Leadership Academy and has over 30 years of experience in healthcare and aging. She is a Principal at Aging Wisdom in Seattle, WA. Jullie is the President of the National Academy of Certified Care Managers and the Past President of the Aging Life Care™ Association.
This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be a substitute for, professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Information on this blog does not necessarily reflect official positions of the Aging Life Care Association® and is provided “as is” without warranty. Always consult with a qualified professional with any particular questions you may have regarding your or a family member’s needs.