With my mother’s move to her independent living apartment in a wonderful Continuing Care Retirement Community about a month ago, it has been like watching her come out of a long hibernation and rediscover her life.
I always knew from my work with seniors that socialization was very important for them and my mother has proven to be no exception. Living alone in a big house and having some physical limitation was creating, for her, what had become a very ‘small’ life. While she had lovely neighbors who cared very deeply about her and friends that she kept up with, the opportunities for purely social interaction were limited. She did not have social visits with others daily, ate meals alone and belonged to no outside groups (other than church on Sunday).
All of my growing up years we had family dinner, for many of those years eating rather late (7:30) so that my father could get home from his day at the University where he taught. And after we all left home, my parents still ate together in the evenings as well as breakfast in the morning. It gave a rhythm to their days and a purpose to fixing meals beyond just feeding yourself.
Meals can be such an important social part of a person’s day. A family or group of friends gathered around a table sharing a meal, wine and stories can leave one feeling uplifted and engaged in life; laughter and discussion, explanations and debate, conversation that keeps the mind agile. Life!
We humans are, generally, social creatures. We live in groups and have high levels of social interaction with each other. Social interactions keep us engaged and, it turns out, healthy! Studies have shown that people who are isolated from others have an increased incidence of health problems. The overall death rates of patients with heart disease in a study conducted in 1998 found that of those in the study that reported feeling very isolated, were not married and had nobody to confide in, 50% died within 5 years compared with only 17% of the group that reported having a spouse or confidant! I’d say that this shows what great medicine friends can be!
In another study of seniors reported in the Annals of Family Medicine it was demonstrated that, for seniors suffering from symptoms of depression, social contact may be as effective as physical activity in improving their quality of life and mood. Another plug for the benefits of social interaction….
Add to these findings the other benefits that have been linked to seniors who socialize, boosted immune system, lower blood pressure, reduced physical pain and improved nutrition, and it is hard to deny that ‘people who have people’ are healthier and happier.
Some of the things that can trigger depression in the elderly are: Loneliness and isolation, health problems, reduced sense of purpose, recent bereavements, fears, and some medications. If a senior in your life is experiencing any of these issues, keep your eyes open for signs of depression: sad mood, preoccupation with failures and inadequacies, loss of self-esteem, feelings of uselessness, hopelessness, excessive guilt, slowed thinking, loss of interest in hobbies and people, social isolation, lethargy, agitation, changes in appetite and weight, over-sleeping or insomnia. If you feel that there may be a problem, get them to the doctor for an evaluation.
But it is wonderful to be witness to the benefits of social interactions. My mother is engaged in life once again now that her life holds so much more than worries about the house and visits to my father. She goes to meals with others, attends exercise class and is frequently mentioning a concert that she attended or a lecture that is on her schedule. Phone calls, that used to be focused on the worries, stresses and when I might come to visit next, are now filled with details of her new life. I can only anticipate that over time, she will see an improvement in her overall health as well. The hip, knee and ankle that have bothered her for so long may just improve with the exercise classes and the benefits of the social interactions on her perceptions of pain may play a role as well.
As the song goes, “People who need people” may be the “luckiest people in the world,” but it would seem that they are also the happiest and healthiest people as well.
On the journey with you…….Kathy
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