Ask anyone for 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 may be the single most important ingredient for aging well.
Why is it important to recognize isolation and loneliness?
Researchers have been studying the impact of social isolation and loneliness on health and well-being 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.
The growing problem of social isolation and loneliness affects millions of older Americans. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A) estimates that “one in five adults over age 50 are affected by isolation, a problem that has been associated with higher rates of chronic disease, depression, dementia and death.” The n4a, in collaboration with AARP Foundation, launched the national public education campaign—Expanding Your Circles: Prevent Isolation and Loneliness As You Age—intentionally during the holidays, to raise awareness about this issue and help families and friends recognize risk factors and problems.
How to spot problems
How can you tell if an older adult in your life is at risk of isolation? There are telltale signs that may indicate a need for extra support:
- Living alone
- Family living at a distance
- Friends have passed away and social circle is getting smaller and smaller
- 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 well-being? 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.
A beautiful story recently went viral on social media, retold by network news outlets about the unlikely relationship between Norah, a 4-year-old, and “Mr. Dan” Peterson, 82. Mr. Dan, who is a widower and grieving the recent loss of his wife, made a routine trip to the grocery story that changed his life. When greeted by Norah with “Hi, old person! It’s my birthday!” a special bond was sparked, pulling Mr. Dan out of his isolation and loneliness, and giving him a new purpose. Unfortunately, chance encounters like this don’t happen often, but all of us have opportunities to be a Norah to the Mr. Dans in the world, or find ways to help make meaningful connections.
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. Mr. Dan and Norah’s story is a perfect example of this.
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 nonprofit organizations
- Taking classes or attending lectures at local libraries, schools, and other community venues
- Joining a book group or social club
- Exploring events and activities available at your neighborhood senior center
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 mom 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 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 elder’s sense of independence and self-esteem. Preventing her from doing things on her own can lead to a state of “learned helplessness”–loss of confidence and less willingness to try things independently.
The N4A has put together a helpful brochure, focused on older adults, entitled Expanding Your Circles: Prevent Isolation and Loneliness as You Age. Here you’ll find a self-assessment checklist, information, ideas, and resources to identifying risk for isolation and ways to stay connected and engaged.
Locally, there are many ways for older adults to connect:
- ElderFriends is a volunteer-based program that provides companionship, outreach, and advocacy services to isolated older adults throughout Seattle and King County.
- Sound Generations offers meals and fitness programs, free rides to medical appointments, and opportunities for meaningful engagement with others in Seattle and King County at their Senior Centers.
- Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County: Aging and Disability Services (ADS) plans, coordinates, and advocates for a comprehensive service delivery system for older adults, family caregivers and people with disabilities in King County.
- King County Library System (KCLS) has a great department focused on adults who are 50 and older, and includes programs such as the Wisdom Cafes, resources fairs, and classes.
- Aging Life Care Professionals™ (also known as a geriatric care managers) are trusted advisors who can thoroughly evaluate a situation and provide knowledgeable advice about how to help reduce social isolation, arrange individualized activities and companion services, overcome barriers such as resistance to change, and open doors to possibilities you may never have imagined.
Contributor Jullie Gray, MSW, LICSW, CMC, is a Fellow Certified Care Manager with over 30 years of experience in healthcare and aging. She is a principal at Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care/geriatric care management practice serving King and south Snohomish Counties. Jullie is also president of the National Academy of Certified Care Managers and the past-president of the Aging Life Care™ Association.