The Importance of Social Connections for the Elderly
We may understand how important physical activity is as we age, but many people do not realize the impact social health has on our health. Social interactions can be as effective as exercise in maintaining our quality of life. Adults who are letting go of their social interactions are putting themselves at risk for depression and dementia. Studies abound linking social health and cognitive function.
Interaction with peers can lead to a sharper mind, as well as a sense of belonging. The health benefits of being socially connected are widespread, including a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular problems, arthritis and osteoporosis because seniors are more active. It can boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and improve your eating habits (since eating is a very social activity).
A 2011 study found that elderly people who are socially engaged and maintain or increase their level of social activity have a slower progression of health decline that their peers who become more socially isolated. The participants in the first group may be more motivated to maintain their health, and may have access to better health information than less socially active elders.
Another key finding of the study is that elderly people have control over their social lives. Although they may become socially disengaged through retirement or widowhood, they can still seek out social activities in other places.
How to Stay Socially Connected
Here are a few ways to stay socially connected:
Volunteer – Volunteerism is a sure-fire way to increase your self-esteem and to give back to your community.
Get a part-time job – An excellent way to stay connected is to work part-time. In a work situation, you have no choice but to interact with other people.
Join a club – Gardening, reading, playing cards or golf anyone? Pick an interest, new or old, and either learn from the experience, teach others what you know or do both.
Take a class – Many communities offer Continuing Education through their departments of education. Many classes are geared toward seniors, and they can range from technology to cooking. Or participate in a class at your local hardware or craft store.
Learn new technology – Learn how to use the Internet. While it doesn’t offer face-to-face communication, you can easily stay connected to friends and loved ones. Once you’ve learned how to Facetime, you can video chat with your grandchildren!
How you Can Help the Ones You Love Stay Connected
Offer transportation – The loss of the ability to drive can be devastating to an elderly person and can physically and emotionally isolate them. If they live near public transportation (and are able bodied), offer to teach them how to use it. You can also investigate what kinds of transportation for seniors exists in their community, or teach them how to use a ride-sharing service.
Encourage organized social activities – Clubs, volunteer organizations, classes and organized events at a senior center will all promote a sense of purpose, as well as keeping the elderly engaged and interested. These meetings help to prevent them from becoming isolated.
Encourage religious seniors to attend services – Religious communities of all denominations have a real interest in taking care of their own. This one may even come with transportation, as that fellow congregants who live nearby will be happy to provide a ride.
Consider a pet – The elderly and pets are a match made in heaven, so long as they are able (both physically and mentally) to care for an animal. The act of nurturing can relieve feelings of social isolation.
Animal companionship facilitates social interaction. It also gives pet owners a reason to get up in the morning!
Encourage hearing and vision tests – Seniors who are losing their sight and hearing are more likely to isolate themselves socially because of embarrassment. Treatment for hearing loss could improve their lives immeasurably.
Talk to their neighbors – Socially isolated seniors may have all kinds of problems related to living alone. Because they spend so much time alone, issues such as early stage dementia and other health issues may go unnoticed. Ask neighbors to keep an eye open and let you know if anything seems wrong, and to stop by occasionally just to say “hi.”
Arrange for a companion – Hire a reputable service to provide an adult companion with shared interests to spend time with your loved one. This will help to reduce the risk of social isolation, and they will look forward to visits from their new friend.
Social interaction for elderly adults is important for so many reasons, from physical health to emotional health. Most communities have many resources for keeping the elderly active and healthy. Senior centers, ride services, meals on wheels and not-for-profits are just a few of the services to help your senior loved one remain socially active.