Hints, Tips & Advice

How Important is the Socialization of the Elderly?

The long barren hallways of a nursing home, ten or twenty wheelchair bound frail seniors, heads slumped down, never looking up at the scurrying nurses rushing by to handle one emergency after another – the picture is indelibly written on our minds. This is not socialization – it is isolationism. Yet, study after study has shown that some form of active socialization can have a positive affect on one’s health. The sad truth is that as many of our elderly age, they begin to lose their social contacts and there are logical reasons for this loss.

First, our elderly begin to lose their ability to drive – clearly a means to an independent life style; thus limiting their access to friends, relatives, and social activities. Second, as one spouse becomes ill, the other spouse becomes more homebound in order to care for his or her spouse – again, further developing a form of social isolationism. And third, as we age, many of our friends pass away – further reducing the potential for normal social contacts. The result is a moderately constant decline in social function as we age.

The need to maintain social interactions, and thus good health, is strong. The following points have been paraphrased from the article by Gary M. Skole, Elderly in Home Care Doesn’t Mean a Lack of Socialization, Ezine Articles, January 5, 2010:
• Those elderly folks who get out and interact and spend more time with people during cold/flu season actually get fewer colds and illnesses than those who spend most of their time alone.
• Those folks with a companion pet to interact with have fewer illnesses than people who do not have a companion animal.
• Those who often use the words “I”, “mine”, and “me” during casual conversation are more susceptible to heart attacks than those who do not focus on themselves.
• Our natural immune system is negatively affected by social isolationism.

A recent Harvard School of Public Health study published in The American Journal of Public Health, suggests that “strong social ties, through friends, family, and community groups, can preserve our brain health as we age and that social isolation may be an important risk factor for cognitive decline in the elderly.” (Tara Parker-Pope, Socializing Appears to Delay Memory Problems, The New York Times, Well, June 4, 2008).

The study indicated that those elderly engaged in many social contacts had the slowest rate of memory decline. The idea is to not sit and wither away, but rather engage in some form of social activity beyond the limited world of friends (which are, unfortunately, naturally declining).

With this perspective in mind, below are some tips for increasing social activities with the elder person in your life:

• Learn a new skill. Engage your elder in learning a new language for example. Or any type of brain stimulation game (my 11 year old has a Nintendo DS hand held game in which we can place a small card offering up many brain teaser/stimulations games – and it’s fun).
• Volunteer at local soup kitchens or libraries. Work a part-time job at Walmart as a “greeter.” Suggest to your elder that enjoys walking to volunteer to maintain your local hiking trails.
• Join other social groups, such as church or civic organizations like the Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus.
• Contact the local town hall and see what the senior activities are in that area. Many local organizations schedule their activities through a town hall and seek out local workers and volunteers to assist with helping others continue to enjoy their social lives.
• Get your senior fit, and while doing that join a local gym where social interaction is certainly more prevalent than sitting at home.

For many elders, their social lifestyle is already in place, yet that does not mean they cannot change. Encourage your elder to get up, get out, and live again by interacting with others – it can really benefit their health!

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