July 24, 2018

The Importance of Socialization As We Age

Oaklawn Center on Aging

By Kathy Packard, MS, M.Ed., LPC, and Valerie Claar, MSN, RN, CNE
Oaklawn Center on Aging

 

Loneliness is defined as a feeling of sadness or distress about being by yourself or without friends. Loneliness can be either a response to or an effect of isolation.  Loneliness can lead to isolation, which is defined as being separated from other people and your environment. Loneliness can also lead to depression and numerous health issues. As we grow older we experience losses.   Family and friends may become ill and or die.   We might find it easier to look for companionship through social media, or to order our groceries, clothing, etc. online, avoiding any and all human contact.  As health care professionals who focus on best practices for the older adult population, we are capable of taking care of the medical, physical, and mental health needs but find we are at a loss as to how to get our consumers to get out and participate in social events with their peers.  We know loneliness and social isolation are health hazards.

According to Brigham Young University study in 2010, loneliness isn’t just bad for the individual and communities; it is a legitimate public health threat. The Brigham Young study found that weak social connections can shorten a person’s life by 15 years, which is the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Without the benefit of socialization, older adults who are facing medical issues do not have the support of their peers and may tend toward health decline. Research presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in 2017 showed that greater social connection corresponds with a 50 percent decrease in the risk of early death.

It can be beneficial to know how to help and where to start.  The answer may lie within our own reach by really working with the consumer/patient and having an honest conversation about the health benefits of socialization.  It can also help to make a consumer driven plan that is achievable and enhances quality of life by decreasing loneliness.

More and more older adults are living longer and alone. Including socialization as part of the treatment plan may be one way to attack the problem.  Getting the psychosocial history and writing a prescription for social activities our consumers are “willing and able to fill” may be a good first step toward increasing human contact and decreasing their loneliness.  Encouraging older adults to include social activities, along with healthy eating and physical activity may help foster a healthy way of living for quality, enrichment and social engagement.  Promoting local community programs such as Senior Centers, congregate meals, YWCA, YMCA, art classes, exercises classes such as Tai Chi, music programs (local orchestras, bands, etc.), and volunteering to help others are just a few of the resources at the local level.

As with any prescription, start low and go slow, it will take time for someone who has suffered from loneliness and isolation to “get back out there”.   Having the consumer/patient actively participate in the development of the treatment plan and goals will be a step in the direction of self worth and motivation to achieve the desired outcome.