“We’ve put more effort into helping folks reach old age than into helping them enjoy it.”—Frank Howard Clark.
As people age, they often lose built in opportunities to socialize. Younger people are busy with kids and their activities. They usually have a built-in social network, if not several: family, friends, co-workers, church groups, civic organizations, etc.
Unfortunately, as people get older much of this gets lost. Families are more spread out today. Seniors may not have the opportunities to see their children and grandchildren the way they might have had in the past. Moreover, once they retire, they often lose the social connections and acquaintances that came with their job.
As they advance in age, the elderly continue to lose social contacts due to the passing of friends and loved ones. Sometimes they become increasingly isolated because they are tending to the health care needs of a spouse. Of course a decline in mobility, which might include the loss of driving privileges, also contributes to the increased isolation many seniors face.
Even though the elderly tend to become increasingly isolated over time, their need for socialization is as great as ever (if not all the more so). We all know the importance of having healthy, positive relationships with others. Even the “introverts” that I’ve known don’t particularly like to be lonely per se. The same is true of our elderly loved ones. They may not always say it or show it, but they crave the same social interactions that the rest of us do.
They also need it. Robert Wilson, PhD, participated in a study at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, which examined the association between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease in 823 older adults over a four-year period. What Wilson and his colleagues found is that, while loneliness is not an early sign of Alzheimer’s, it is in fact a potential risk factor for the disease. As Wilson put it, “Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health. The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.”
Other studies have also shown the healthful benefits of socialization for the elderly. So how do we keep the seniors in our lives from getting “persistently lonely?” As with many things, it’s obviously not a one size fits all type of an answer and much depends on the particular circumstances of the senior and his or her family. Something as simple as basic attention and companionship, however, is not a bad place to start.
For example, I’m on a rotation to visit a local senior living community on at least a monthly basis. If possible, I always make sure to bring my kids. It changes the entire dynamic. It’s not a stretch to say that they are drawn to the children the way plants are to the sunlight. A couple of times I even brought my two year old. Sure, I was afraid he would become unruly, and he didn’t disappoint in that regard. However, he was also a little rock star. One resident in particular has never shown so much “life” and enjoyment as when he was there.
The point is that exposing them to others and visiting your loved ones as much as possible is a good place to start. I’ve seen the spirits of the elderly lifted up plenty just from having someone around who cares enough to be there.
Fortunately, there are many opportunities for socialization and activities in our area and we’ll take a closer look at those in more detail next month. For now, we’ll leave it with a quip from Mark Twain. “Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” Keep it fun and do your best to keep your loved ones smiling!