Helping Senior Loved Ones Expand Their Social Horizons

A group of senior friends takes a selfie.

When it comes to our understanding of healthy aging, the last 10 years might be called "The Decade of Social Connection." Gerontologists increasingly have sounded the alarm about the problem of loneliness among our senior population. Multiple studies confirmed that social isolation is highly pernicious, raising the risk of hypertension, obesity, depression, stroke and heart attack — and in the process, lowering life expectancy. (For an overview, see "Growing Awareness of a Senior Epidemic" in the April 2017 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter.)

This research has motivated many families to make spending time with their elderly loved ones a higher priority. But here's something they might not know: Family ties are not enough.

In 2017, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers studied the reported happiness and well-being of 280,000 people of different ages. Assistant professor of psychology William Chopik noted that as we grow older, friendships play a greater healthy aging role than family relationships. "Friendships become even more important as we age," said Chopik. "Studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness and ultimately how long we'll live, more so than spousal and family relationships."

Another 2017 study, this one from Northwestern University, found that the brains of "SuperAgers" — seniors aged 80 or older who exhibit the cognitive abilities of much younger people — benefit from satisfying, high-quality friendships. Said study author Emily Rogalski, "You don't have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline." Explained Rogalski, "It's not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you'll never get Alzheimer's disease. But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list."

Seniors face challenges in maintaining social connections.

Nurturing our friendships can be harder as we grow older. Friends move or pass away. When we retire, we often lose our longtime social context, suddenly spending much less time with other people. Maybe we relocate to a retirement community, or to a warmer climate where we've always wanted to live — but where we don't know anyone. Mobility challenges, vision loss and other health problems might cause us to give up the car keys; hearing problems make it harder to communicate.

Modern life amplifies the problem. Today we spend less time socializing in person, and more time on our smartphones or on social media, in more superficial relationships. Sociologists report that the baby boomers spend less time with others than their parents did. Baby boomers are more likely to have moved away from the community where they grew up, leaving them with fewer enduring childhood friendships. They worked longer hours and played less. A survey from the AARP showed that 35 percent of older adults today report chronic loneliness — compared with only 20 percent a decade earlier.

Luckily, gerontologists and senior planning agencies are taking notice of this friendship gap. Doctors today might ask senior patients about their social life. Urban planners are more aware of the importance of public spaces that encourage interaction, such as community gardens, recreation centers and neighborhood organizations. In January 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a national Minister for Loneliness!

This is all encouraging. But meanwhile, what can families do if they believe a senior loved one is becoming socially isolated?

Some seniors move to a retirement community or assisted living facility, environments that provide opportunities to make new friends (though reports show that elders sometimes face social challenges upon move-in if they feel like "the new kid"). Other elders are forming "villages," banding together in various group living models.

But most seniors opt to stay in their own homes. They prefer a comfortable, familiar place where they feel independent. And yet, in their own homes they might gradually fall into social isolation. Geriatric psychologists describe a cycle of loneliness: A senior finds it harder to get out and spend time with others; their social skills become rusty, and they gradually spend more and more time alone because it seems easier. If this describes your loved one, it may be time to step in. Talk to their doctor. Counseling can help. There are even support groups for people who feel socially anxious.

The role of your professional in-home caregiver

In-home caregiver watching senior client play the piano

If your family uses in-home care to assist a loved one with tasks such as personal care, grooming and managing health conditions, make socialization support part of the care plan.

The most obvious social benefit of home care is the human connection between your loved one and the caregiver. Choose an agency that will carefully match your loved one with a compatible caregiver.

Next, consider ways the caregiver can help your loved one sustain friendships. MSU's Chopik says, "Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being. So it's smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest." In 2017, investigating the role of best friends, University of Brighton researchers found that our "besties" provide us with a great deal of psychological resilience. To help foster and protect these relationships, the professional caregiver can provide transportation to a friend's home or a lunch date out. Does your loved one like to entertain at home? Caregivers can prepare meals and perform housekeeping, and can help with bathing, dressing and grooming so your loved one will feel their best.

And new friendships, too, can be very rewarding! The old camp song, "Make new friends and keep the old/One is silver and the other gold" holds true throughout life. A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted that "the sheer size of a person's social network" supports good health in our later years. The in-home caregiver can take your loved one to the senior center, to volunteer opportunities, or to a club or their faith community, providing transportation and an extra measure of confidence to make new connections happen.

If your loved one has Alzheimer's disease or other memory loss, remember that they still benefit greatly from contact with others. Even people who can't remember the events of the day retain the good feelings they get from socialization. The time your loved one spends with the caregiver is beneficial. And did you know that more communities today offer special programs for people with Alzheimer's, where they can enjoy the companionship of others and appropriate activities in a nonjudgmental environment?

Studies show family caregivers, too, can experience painful social isolation. They might spend all their time on caregiving tasks, gradually becoming their loved one's sole social support. As MSU's Chopik points out, "Family relationships are often enjoyable, but sometimes they involve serious, negative and monotonous interactions." No matter how well families — and even spouses — get along, having an in-home caregiver provides respite and assistance with care tasks to improve the quality of the time they spend both away from and with their loved one.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.