It takes a village to grow older gracefully
When sociology professor Dr. Eva Kahana and her psychology professor husband decided to study older adults living in retirement villages in Florida, they did not expect to find a very happy bunch. After all, how could they be happy hundreds of miles away from family, enmeshed in a leisure lifestyle?
“We found they were very happy because they chose that lifestyle,” says Kahana, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “We thought they wouldn’t be happy because we wouldn’t be happy in that lifestyle.”
True enough, 70-year-old Eva and her 77-year-old husband, Boaz Kahana from Cleveland State University, enjoy working late into their golden years, publishing papers together, traveling and engaging with younger students.
No matter what type of social interaction people over 50 prefer, one thing is clear – for many, it is important to a long, healthy life.
“Maintaining social ties is one of the most important criteria for successful aging,” Kahana says.
Last year, a study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found evidence that elderly people in the U.S. who have an active social life may have a slower rate of memory decline. And according to the National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, older adults who participated in social activities (i.e., played games, belonged to social groups, attended local events, traveled) or productive activities (i.e., had paid or unpaid jobs, cooked, gardened) lived longer than people who did not report taking part in these types of activities.
Although not having many close friends contributes to poorer health for many older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks, new research at the University of Chicago suggests. Older people who are able to adjust to being alone don’t have the same health problems.
According to the study of about 3,000 people aged 57 to 85 between 2005 and 2006 and published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the most socially connected older adults are three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared to those who are least connected, regardless of whether they feel isolated. Consequently, older adults who feel least isolated are five times as likely to report very good or excellent health as those who feel most isolated, regardless of their actual level of social connectedness.
“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support,” says study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging. However, the researchers found a different relationship between social isolation and mental health. “The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support.”
Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. Deteriorating mental health also reduces people’s willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use.
Other studies back up the importance of social interaction, says Dr. Donna Benton, assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California and director of the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center.
“I always think of a study where they asked a bunch of 100 year olds, ‘What’s kept you alive for so long?’ First was breakfast, the second was having someone they had an interest in. Research has shown that having a confidant contributes towards better health and quality of life.”
As we age, experts say there are many reasons for social isolation – loss of family and friends as they move away or die, leaving jobs and coworkers, getting ill and lack of transportation. But there are solutions.
“I think churches, synagogues – which are great places to find support groups for the elderly – senior centers, universities and other institutions that offer adult learning are great ways to stay involved and meet new people as well as keep seniors active,” says Dr. Anne Katz, an associate professor of clinical gerontology at USC. “Many cities offer exercise programs and activities for seniors. Multipurpose senior centers have been established to help ease the transition of aging. They plan activities such as exercise, meals, games, and trips.”
And then there is volunteerism.
“Studies have shown that people who have had a variety of volunteer jobs are more apt to be interested in continuing socially as they age,” Katz says.
More importantly, experts say, volunteering and other forms of social interaction can bring seniors into contact with others whom they have more in common with.
“I talked to some ladies who said they don’t like to be moved into a retirement home because they really don’t have a lot in common with some people their own age,” Benton says. “People think that a 65 year old can talk to a 75 year old. There’s a generational difference. It’s like a 10 year old talking to a 20 year old.”