The Midwest is known as a friendly place. Visitors often return to their own communities commenting on the warmth of those who live here. Maybe that’s why our area is home to some of the most important research on the topic of socialization.
A November 2017 study from Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine revealed that seniors who have close, warm friendships are more likely to maintain their brain health well into their later years. And for decades, University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo has performed pioneering research showing that the health of seniors suffers tremendously if they become socially isolated. Cacioppo has said, “Feeling lonely isn’t only unhappy; it’s unsafe.”
Not only here, but at research facilities all over the country and worldwide, the role of socialization in healthy aging has become a hot topic. At the 2017 convention of the American Psychological Association, a presenter stated, “Loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, and the impact has been growing and will continue to grow.” Social isolation has been linked to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, overall poor health and a shorter life. Loneliness affects us down to the cellular level. Researchers from MIT were even able to observe loneliness in the human brain!
It’s harder for people of any age to have a healthy social life these days. We’re busier and we switch jobs and homes more often. Rather than sitting on the front porch in the summer greeting passing neighbors, we stay in our air-conditioned homes. People seem to be glued to their digital devices, spending more time with their Facebook friends than their real-life friends. For seniors, the challenges are even greater. An AARP study showed that today, 18 million seniors live alone, and that number is growing. Sensory, mobility and cognitive challenges make it harder to get around. The generations are more segregated today, and ageism is also a factor.
But it’s worth it to make the effort. If you or an older loved one are experiencing social isolation, make it a priority to continue favorite activities, and find new ones. Check out the local senior center, clubs and events at your faith community. Take a class, or even a part-time job. Volunteering is a great way to make connections, and there are opportunities for people of every ability. If you can no longer drive, learn about senior transportation options in your area. If a loved one has memory loss, check out programs that offer tailored activities and fellowship in a nonjudgmental setting.
Many seniors opt to move to a senior living community, where they can always be around people and take part in appropriate, fun activities—with the care support it takes to make it happen. It’s a great way to expand one’s social network, even for seniors who are living with health challenges. Alden offers assisted living in beautiful settings, with a full range of activities and just the right level of care to help residents be as independent as possible. Memory care is also available.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you are experiencing feelings of loneliness and depression, report it to your healthcare provider.