Taking the time to check in and engage with elderly loved ones this festive season could do wonders for their mental health and wellbeing. In this two-part series we look at the importance and benefits of being socially connected as we age.
Research conducted by National Seniors shows that social connection is just as important as physical and cognitive activity in reducing the likelihood of chronic disease, and may encourage other lifestyle habits promoting healthy ageing.
A 2017 study by the consumer lobby group shows that having just one close confidante is associated with fewer depressive symptoms, better self-rated health, and fewer days spent sick in bed.
For Brisbane resident Penny Brockett, regular coffee catch ups and lunches with friends are about more than just getting out of the house.
The New Farm National Seniors member says these social outings help her maintain relationships and stay in touch with her community - something she says is important for her mental and physical wellbeing as she ages.
“In my experience, my lady friends, old female workmates, new female acquaintances all recognise the importance of keeping our friendships proactive and strong, and we make our coming together a very important part of our life,” she says.
“Everybody, whether they recognise it or not, does need to share opinions, worries, fears, jokes and just plain pleasantries, and it is well worth the effort.”
National Seniors Western Australia zone Chairman Graeme Piggott agrees, saying it’s “hugely important” to mix socially and develop new friendships as we age.
“Feeling unloved and uncared for causes elderly people to withdraw into themselves and become prisoners in their own home. Conversation stimulates the brain and without it, the capacity to do things impacts on one's physical wellbeing as well,” he says.
National Seniors research also revealed that a lack of social connections is as comparable a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
National Ageing Research Institute Director of Clinical Gerontology Dr Frances Batchelor says staying socially connected is a key to ageing well.
“In older people, social isolation and loneliness can be a continuation of a lifelong experience or something newly experienced, often in relation to particular events such as retirement, bereavement, illness, loss of independence, change in living circumstances,” she says.
“High-quality relationships, age-friendly neighbourhood environment and access to transport options are factors that can protect against social isolation.”
Dr Batchelor says there is a strong link between social isolation and mental health.
“This goes in both directions - a person who has a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression is more likely to experience social isolation, and those who are socially isolated are at higher risk of mental health conditions,” she says.
“Social isolation also has physical impacts including increased risk of heart disease and stroke, increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, and high blood pressure.”
Dr Batchelor says there are a few signs to look out for that may indicate an elderly loved one is experiencing loneliness.
“An older person experiencing loneliness or decline in mental health may seem less engaged in doing activities they were previously doing,” she says.
“They may withdraw and keep to themselves. Some signs may include a decrease in energy, an increase in levels of fatigue, and changes in mood.”
Monash University’s Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli says it’s important to remember some people enjoy spending time on their own.
“Simply asking someone a direct question about whether they feel lonely can be helpful,” she says.
“Some people may enjoy their solitude, and it is important to acknowledge that not everyone requires intervention.”
A National Seniors snapshot of members views in 2017, which involved over 5,800 participants, showed women were more likely to experience loneliness than men as they age, with 70 percent of women over 80 living alone, compared to only 25 percent of men aged 80 and over.
Both Ms Brockett and Mr Piggott have seen the effects of social isolation firsthand.
“I’ve witnessed lonely people become socially connected after joining volunteering organisations,” Mr Piggott says.
“I have watched people who have gone through a divorce, their partner has passed away, or their children grow up and move away, and their life diminishes,” Ms Brockett adds.
“Their loss of sharing, belonging and having a purpose leaves them hollow. Sometimes they can talk themselves through it - or sometimes they may need a helping hand, someone to help give them back a sense of determination.”
“On the flip side, I have a friend who had returned from many years working overseas to a whole new world back home. She joined a choir, which led to some members forming a book club - now she has friends for life.”
The National Seniors survey also indicated that 75 percent of participants felt younger than their age - an important factor National Seniors Chief Executive Officer Professor John McCallum says contributes to remaining socially active later in life.
He says negative social attitudes about older people can impact how an older person acts and feels.
“Communities, groups and even National Seniors branches need to be aware that feeling younger isn’t ‘just a feeling’, but has real consequences for health and wellbeing,” he says.
“This is something we can all take account of in our clubs and groups by taking notice of others, encouraging them to reject negative stereotypes and act the age they feel.”
National Seniors tips for combating social isolation:
Research shows volunteering is good for your health and gets you to use your skills in a positive way. Check out SEEK Volunteer or local hospitals and notice boards for openings.
Try a new hobby or join a club
Examples include joining a walking group, bridge club, arts and crafts, playing an instrument, reading or dancing.
Own a pet
Companionship has many health benefits, not to mention the unconditional love!
Learn a new skill
University of the Third Age or community centres offer courses.
Rekindle old friendships
Touch base with people you haven’t heard of or seen in a while.
Get digitally savvy
Join online forums, play games such as chess online, enjoy internet shopping, keep in touch with grandkids over email, social media or Skype.
Read more about the role technology plays in remaining socially active in part two.
This article was written in collaboration with National Seniors Australia. With the collective voice of over 130,000 members, National Seniors Australia actively lobbies with government and business at all levels to get a better deal for older Australians. Make your voice count. nationalseniors.com.au