How Important Is Socialization For Seniors?

As individuals plan for their senior living environments as they age, many considerations are critical. Whether you’re thinking of aging in place at home, downsizing to a smaller home, moving to a 55+ community, or seeking out retirement living, the accessibility of socialization may be overlooked. We typically think of criteria like safety features, nutrition, and medical assistance, but not as much thought is put into activities and socialization. As it turns out, it may be the most critical factor in healthy aging!

The Harvard Study on Aging defines happy-well or sad-sick seniors.

Have you been hearing about the Harvard Study on aging recently?  It is back in the news and on the talk show circuit.  It originated in 1937 to follow the aging process of 237 Harvard students (males in their sophomore year).  Later, disadvantaged youths from inner-city Boston were added, and then women.  Creating diversity in the study enlarged the scope. 

George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the study for the past 35 years, set out to determine the factors that resulted in ‘happy-well’ or ‘sad-sick’ seniors.  The participants that are alive today are in their 80’s and 90’s.  The seven key indicators were: 

  • education 
  • alcohol abuse 
  • smoking 
  • marriage stability 
  • exercise 
  • weight
  • coping mechanisms 

The study followed these people to understand the important factors in the ability of seniors to stay healthy and happy and why others did not. The study still exists today and continues to make headlines with significant new findings.

Recent interpretation has spotlighted relationship stability as a factor that may well outweigh the traditional markers like smoking, obesity, and exercise. The newest data analysis says our ability to nurture and be nurtured is invaluable. The human connection aspect is not about being an extrovert or having 300 friends on Facebook; it is about deep and genuine interpersonal relationships.  This is true of great marriages and great friendships.  

As you grow older, happy-well people have become pros at engaging other humans at a deeper level. The sad-sick have withdrawn into themselves and have limited interactions and more superficial relationships. A simple lesson from the Harvard Study is to worry less about cholesterol and more about friendship, gratitude, and love.  

So what does this have to do with planning for senior living?

What many people ignore is the fact that staying in your home eventually creates the possibility of being isolated. When an individual can no longer drive or find transportation to social outings, it is a real detriment to a thriving lifestyle. Because of mobility issues, it becomes challenging to get into a car. Wheelchairs and walkers are lifesavers, but they become more difficult to transport. 

Depression is the natural enemy of seniors

Even high-functioning adults entering their 70s, 80s, and 90s are at risk of isolation and depression. Especially if they have had busy and engaged lives and suddenly find themselves alone for long periods. They might become widowed or have family that lives across the country. Without work and family engagement, life can become very lonely. The television is no substitute for relationships with real people.

Back to the Harvard Study On Seniors

Just imagine reading a full-page ad in the newspaper saying that a significant scientific discovery has been made that will extend healthy living by 10 to 15 years.  For a mere $19.95, the secret remedy is yours.  When the package arrives, the instructions simply say to start making a concerted effort to create more genuine relationships.  Would you demand a refund?  The Harvard Study on Aging would indicate that a simple thing like making friends is better than the best medicine that science has to offer. 

Now, this requires more than jumping on Facebook and sending friend requests. This means developing deep personal interactive relationships that are based on love, gratitude, and forgiveness. 

One of the greatest McCrite Plaza stories is what became known as the ‘Third Floor gang.’ It started rather spontaneously but developed into a memorable group of girlfriends who lived in close proximity at McCrite Plaza. The casual friendship that started between two women grew as new residents moved in. They began by meeting in the hallway for coffee every morning. They would bring their chairs out in the hallway and bring their own coffee and enjoy each other’s company for an hour or more. The hallway was the chosen spot because it became the symbol of the open invitation for all the third-floor residents. No one was left out if they wanted to participate. They would share their daily snacks, and Friday became donut day which McCrite staff would make possible. The group grew to include everyone on the floor. It was so popular that they added happy hour at 4:00 every day! The relationships were deep and very supportive. They looked after each other, and if there were changes in health status, they were the first to notice and report to staff. These women developed the closest relationships of their lives. Yes, a few men/spouses joined in, but it was the women that were always there. Everyone was convinced they actually kept each other going because they never wanted to miss coffee or happy hour. These folks were definitely happy-well! 

Developing deep relationships is time-consuming and rewarding work. A simple lesson from the study is to worry less about cholesterol and more about gratitude and forgiveness. An ever-widening social radius of human connection allows seniors to be among the happy-well group. 

One of the steps that may improve the odds of being happy and well is living in a vibrant, active community. Isolation is bad medicine! Participating or living in a senior community allows the continued social interaction that is key to good mental, emotional, and physical health.  The happy-well vs. sad-sick scenario is a real issue as you age. Planning for a future with new friends and activities is worth seeking out. Come for a visit soon, and as you make plans for your future, keep in mind that isolation is not your friend. 

Call us in Briarcliff-Kansas City at (816) 888-7930 or (785) 267-2960 in Topeka and schedule a tour to see everything available to make life exciting for your future!

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