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How to Stay Social as You Age
Maybe you imagined retirement as a time of relaxation, going out with friends, and spending precious moments with family. However, in reality, many seniors don’t take full advantage of the extra time they have and may actually become more withdrawn. This can happen for a number of reasons, including health concerns and accessibility challenges. It can also be difficult to know how you fit into social situations as you grow older.
Despite these obstacles, it’s essential to try to maintain and make new connections throughout every part of your life. Here’s the research that supports staying social and what you can do to get back into the game.
Importance of social interaction
How does a lack of socializing impact your health? According to the Health Resources & Services Administration, loneliness and isolation could be as damaging to a senior's health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The same report says that up to 43% of older adults feel lonely on a daily basis. The associated consequences of that loneliness include a 29% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% rise in the risk of stroke. With a quarter of adults now living alone, it’s more important than ever for these individuals to reach out and find ways to connect with loved ones and their communities.
What are the social needs of the elderly population?
Your needs are much like the needs of anyone else. Seniors can benefit from eating meals together, taking in entertainment (like movies or plays), participating in exercise, and simply sharing a conversation over coffee. Personal connections matter for older adults just as much (if not more) than younger people.
The benefits of the elderly socializing may be hard to realize when there are added difficulties to getting out. These include mobility issues, health restrictions, and even financial limitations that can prevent you from enjoying activities that cost money.
Four tips for seniors and socialization
Now that you know why the social needs of older adults are so important, what can you do to boost your own social score? Here are some ideas that have worked for others.
1. Reconnect with friends and family
You may be missing your loved ones more than anyone else, and it's not always possible to stay as connected as you’d like if they live far away or have busy lives. That doesn't mean you can't continue to reach out. Even if things are hectic in their lives, you can always send birthday cards, make regular phone calls, and ask about what's going on in their world.
If the relationship feels too one-sided or causes stress, you don't need to work so hard. Simply sending a handwritten note in the mail is enough to remind your family that you still care, and it can help build a stronger bond. This works for those who you haven’t talked to in some time, too, like old classmates or co-workers who may also be looking to reconnect.
2. Learn a new skill
Our brains do better when they have a workout, and studies show that learning a new skill can provide positive effects in mood and slow down cognitive decline. Plus, it’s an excellent way to spend your time, and you will likely meet new people, too. Whether you sign up for a pottery class, a music camp, or a book club, when you challenge yourself to expand your knowledge, chances are you’ll be more social.
If the idea of learning something totally new feels overwhelming, consider something that’s adjacent to your existing skills. If you’re familiar with knitting, consider taking up crochet. Or, if you already enjoy painting, you could sign up for a class in a new style.
These two examples will nudge your brain to meet new challenges you can feel comfortable tackling. Bonus points if you can go to one of these classes with a friend. It will help you bond over the goals you set while you cheer each other on.
3. Embrace technology
If you’re someone who has avoided getting online or owning a smart device out of fear or frustration, you’re not alone. However, opting out of the world of technology may be preventing you from getting the most out of what’s become a very social place. Whether it’s social media networks like Facebook or using video chat to “see” your grandkids, the latest tech is making it easier for even those without much experience to get online.
If you’re open to learning a completely new set of skills, buying a computer or investing in a smartphone can give you access to so many options, including gaming and digital art! But you don't have to overwhelm yourself with everything tech has to offer.
You can always start small with a senior-friendly smartphone that lets you surf the web and chat with friends. This is a great entry-level plan for embracing tech one step at a time. Some of the phones designed for seniors even come with emergency services that alert a loved one if something goes wrong so the authorities can get to your home if you are unresponsive.
If you have family members or friends who can show you how to use these devices, you can learn most technology relatively quickly. If you don’t have anyone you know personally to help, look for classes at the local public library, community college, or senior center that are designed especially for older tech students. You may even meet some new friends, too.
4. Give to others
No one disputes the benefits of social interaction in the elderly. Humans thrive when they feel like they’re part of a community and have a purpose of serving that community. Perhaps this is why service to others, in the form of volunteering, is a popular choice for those hoping to meet the social needs of older adults. By helping sort clothes at a donation center or making pies for the school fundraiser, seniors can have a meaningful impact on those around them and meet new faces, too.
If you want to join an organization that provides volunteer opportunities, reach out to your local senior center, faith community, school district, or chamber of commerce for ideas. These places often need some extra help during holidays or special events.
Social changes of aging
People change throughout their lifetimes, and this is especially true in the older years. That doesn’t mean old habits are easy to break. If you’ve never considered yourself a social person, it may be difficult to get out of your comfort zone to actively find friends for the first time. You may struggle if you’ve been the life of the party, too, because your expectations of what’s considered “social” may be harder to meet as you age.
While the importance of social interactions for elderly adults may seem obvious, it may be difficult to follow through. If you're avoiding social activities because they are awkward or you don't want to feel needy, it's time to reframe your perspective. Everyone needs to be around people. Your age may limit some opportunities, but it also makes it easier to dedicate time to those people and pursuits that truly matter.
If you’re struggling to figure out how to move forward, feel especially lonely, or have additional mental health concerns that are affecting your nutrition, mobility, or sleep, reach out to a professional. They can help you determine if your social issues are something deeper, such as anxiety or depression, then work with you to form a plan. You don’t have to accept loneliness as a new way of life.