The Importance of Human Connection in Aging Well
As human beings, we are designed by nature, to seek out others and connect with each other. From smiling to a stranger we pass in the street, to developing a lifelong commitment to another person, human connection is, according to many philosophers, the very essence of life. According to Matthew Lieberman, author of the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, “Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion. It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years.”
As we age, socialization continues to be critically important to our overall well-being. Several studies have shown that people who are more social get sick less and have healthier minds. A study from the Rush University Memory and Aging Project concluded that a higher level of social engagement in old age is associated with better cognitive function. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who engaged in a lot of social activity in their 50s and 60s had the slower rates of memory decline compared to those who were more socially inactive. According to a new study conducted at Brigham Young University, “the effect of [social isolation and loneliness] is comparable to obesity.” Lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad emphasizes that “we need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”
However, the older we get, the more our opportunities for socialization start to decline. We may no longer go to a job. Health issues may isolate us. Our spouse and friends may have passed away. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness.
Six Ways to Increase Your Opportunities for Socializing
Here are some tips to help you or someone you love increase their opportunities for connection.
- Schedule time to meet with friends
Now that you know the importance of socializing, it needs to be something you actively pursue. Don’t wait until you hear from someone about going out – make the call yourself! Put “getting together with friends” at the top of your to-do list every day.
- Make new friends by joining a support group
There are thousands of groups across the country that get together for the purpose of providing support and camaraderie. Whether you’ve recently lost a spouse or loved one, have cancer, or simply like to have coffee with friends, there’s probably a group in your area. Visit seniors.meetup.com for some established senior groups in the Seattle area.
Volunteering for a cause you believe in not only introduces you to new people, it provides people with a sense of purpose. If you’re not sure how to start, visit volunteer.gov and look for opportunities in your area. Or find a local senior living community and offer your services, which could as simple as spending time with another human being.
- Get a pet
Meaningful connection doesn’t have to be with another human to be beneficial. A study published in Aging & Mental Health showed that older adults who were pet owners were 36 percent less likely than non-pet owners to describe feelings of loneliness. Walking a dog can also be a great way to get some exercise and meet new people.
- Go online
If physical limitations make it difficult for you to leave home to connect with other people, do the next best thing – spend time with them online! A study conducted by University of Exeter researchers concluded that adults aged 60 to 95 who received computer equipment and training “had heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in social activity, had a stronger sense of personal identity, and showed improved cognitive capacity.”
- Practice mindful meditation
While meditation doesn’t necessarily increase the possibility for socializing with others, unless you join a meditation group, it can ease the negative health effects of loneliness. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University showed that eight weeks of the mindfulness meditation training decreased participants’ loneliness.