In its updated report on Older Adults Living Alone, authors Daniel B. Kaplan and Barbara J. Berkman found that 29 percent of the 46 million older adults in the U.S. live by themselves. Forty-six percent of women over 75 live alone, and 60 percent of all adults over 75 who live alone report feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
The effects of social isolation on older people can include depression, poor eating and medication management habits, decreased physical fitness and cognitive decline. Fortunately, regular social interaction makes a profound positive impact on these negative effects.
Active Intervention Required
Most older adults require some type of action to prevent the negative downward spiral that can occur with prolonged social isolation. For those who still drive and have few physical obstacles, the regular practice of “getting out and about and getting involved” can help cultivate a healthy lifestyle. Some volunteer, others get involved with grandchildren, pursue hobbies, join clubs and arrange regular social meetings with friends.
For those with mobility and medical limitations or cognitive decline, active intervention from family, friends or community resources can make a world of difference.
The key to combatting social isolation is to take action. Either the older person commits to undertake the diligent efforts required to achieve consistent social interaction on their own, or others must get involved to help them overcome the obstacles to socialization.
No matter how socializaton occurs, the payback in improved health and well-being is well worth the effort. Here are four key benefits of regular socialization:
- Improved Mood
Depression is a common condition among the elderly living alone. If depression persists for more than a few weeks, it can cause more problems than simply feeling sad. Research shows depression can double the risk of early death among patients with coronary heart disease. It also raises the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. But the good news is that study after study show that consistent socialization not only improves mood, it also reduces the likelihood of depression, stress and cognitive decline.
- Improved Physical Health
People who live alone often spend little or no time on meal preparation, often resulting in poor overall health. For all of us, food represents more than nutrition. A good meal is often remembered less for the food served than by the conversations enjoyed. When the meal is a happy event, we eat better.
Socializing also promotes an active lifestyle, because it can lead to increased participation in events, outings and activities with others. Rewarding and fun activities encourage us to move our bodies, and increased physical activity can improve overall mobility while releasing health-promoting chemicals that boost the immune system, improve mood and ward off decline.
- Improved Brain Health
When we interact with others, our brain is engaged in receiving and sending information. This, in turn, encourages us to continue to respond to our environment and keep learning. A great conversation, a board game, or a group activity can help stimulate our curiosity and exercise the brain as we exchange new ideas, problem solve or share information. Studies show that regular brain exercise can lower the risk of cognitive decline. In short, regular social interaction helps keep memory and brain functioning stronger.
- Improved Sense of Purpose
No matter the age, we all have the ability to make a positive impact on others. A word of support when needed, a joke to make others laugh, an invitation to join in an activity — these simple, yet powerful actions can make others feel valued. Having something meaningful to do with friends helps us look forward to each day. Cultivating strong relationships with others also provides a sense of fulfillment and helps us see life as a joyful experience, filled with opportunities to give purpose and meaning to our existence.
Social isolation is one of the key reasons many chose to make the move to a senior living community. Once there, they appreciate the ease of making social connections by joining other residents at mealtimes, meeting up for outings and events, and participating in the wealth of activities offered.
In addition to the rewarding lifestyle, those living in retirement communities find themselves surprised to learn they often have more independence than ever before. Free from the chores of home maintenance, they have more time to spend with friends, engage in fun activities and explore new interests and hobbies.
At our core, human beings are social animals, so we need relationships with others as much as we require food and shelter to remain healthy. So no matter how you choose to socialize as you age, the benefits are well worth the efforts.