They say the only way to have a friend is to be one. Certainly true, and also a little challenging as we age and circumstances change. Friends move away, or pass on; work associations drift after retirement; mobility or health issues can make it more difficult to arrange get-togethers. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can set in pretty quickly. In fact, with the senior population growing, more aging Americans than ever before are reporting episodes of loneliness, with an astonishing 43% of those living by themselves expressing feelings of severe isolation.
The issue here for seniors on their own isn’t only emotional (although that aspect is huge); geriatric healthcare experts point to significant and potentially serious health problems that can result from elder isolation, including links to cognitive decline and heart disease. So while it might take some creative outreach for mom or dad to connect with people their age, it couldn’t be more important to do so. Here are just a few of significant benefits that result from seniors making that extra effort to seek out social opportunities:
- Social connections benefit overall health: Experts in the field see significant preventive health benefits in maintaining the simplest regular connections, whether it’s through Dad’s church group, senior center class, or neighborhood card game. Getting out and attending a get-together even a few times a week means Dad’s more mobile and less isolated, which collectively lowers his overall risk for a number of serious health conditions, including depression, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and malnutrition.
- Social activity leads to better personal habits. Seniors who see friends regularly are statistically more likely to practice better self-care; including improved personal hygiene and better overall nutrition — even taking medications on a timelier basis.
- More social interaction can prevent or slow the onset of dementia. There’s been significant research done on this topic, all pointing to varying degrees of cognitive benefit. One study in particular saw socially active seniors’ potential for cognitive decline reduced by as much as 70%. Another studied a group of people over 80, comparing their brain function to that of subjects in their 50s and 60s. Those over 80 who reported maintaining positive friendships were more often as cognitively sharp as the younger study participants. “You don’t have to be the life of the party,” states researcher Emily Rogalski, “but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline.”
For more information on the importance of seniors’ social connections, check out this great article by the folks at the AARP.