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Senior Living and Socialization: How Social Engagement in Communities Benefits Health

By Merritt WhitleyDecember 9, 2021
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As seniors age, they may find themselves lacking social opportunities and feeling isolated. This can lead to loneliness and depression, as well as increased physical and cognitive challenges. In fact, about half of unengaged or socially isolated seniors are at an increased risk of developing dementia or other serious medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are increasingly recognizing that healthy aging is not just about avoiding disease, but it’s also about maintaining active engagement in life,” says Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, assistant professor of medicine in geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco and member of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS). “Prioritizing social well-being among seniors can not only help their health, but it can help the well-being of those around them, too,” Kotwal says.

Many senior living communities emphasize social engagement and offer activities that cater to a variety of interests. Learn more about the social needs of seniors, the benefits of social interaction, and how the right senior living community can help your loved one avoid isolation while staying social and engaged.

How socialization can counter senior isolation risks

Senior isolation can be dangerous, both physically and mentally. Studies show humans are naturally social creatures who thrive in secure, safe, and social surroundings. Social disconnection can actually cause the body pain the same way hunger or thirst can. The human body can yearn for social connection the same way it does for food or water because it’s necessary to the survival of genes, according to a study published by the University of Chicago.

The benefits of social interaction in the elderly include:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  • Reduced stress and high blood pressure
  • Improved physical health

Long-term loneliness can take a toll on a person’s cognition, emotions, behavior, and overall health.

“The long-term effects of loneliness can include worsened heart disease, poor sleep, depression, decreased mobility, increased risks of dementia, and even death,” Kotwal says. “It is thought that this occurs through long-standing emotional distress, changes in health behaviors, and wear and tear on our body from an overactive physiologic stress response.”

How to tell if your loved one is experiencing isolation — and what to do about it

Research shows Americans spend less time hosting events or attending activities as they age. In 2018, the percentage of time spent socializing and communicating was about 11% for those age 55 to 64 and 7% for seniors age 75 and over, according to a time use study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Depending on your loved one’s needs, that may be OK — or they may be suffering from isolation.

It’s important to check in to see how people feel about their social lives, says Dr. Kotwal. “Medical professionals are increasingly recognizing that loneliness and social isolation can impact health, and they’re beginning to integrate these assessments into medical visits.”

But isolation isn’t always recognized by medical professionals. If you’re worried about the social well-being of your loved one, consider asking them these questions:

  • Do you feel isolated or left out?
  • Do you feel like you’re lacking companionship?
  • Do you wish you had more visitors?
  • Would you like help connecting with others?

There are many ways you can help prevent social isolation and loneliness for your loved one. Stopping by for a visit, encouraging them to pursue their interests, and using technology to connect are just a few. If you feel your aging loved one could benefit from additional social interaction, consider exploring senior living for a more active, engaged environment.

Senior living can prevent isolation and encourage socialization

Senior living communities can provide aging adults with a place to be themselves. Independent and assisted living communities offer private, apartment-style rooms, but they also boast plenty of social space to spend time with friends and peers. Living in a communal environment with other aging adults makes it difficult to remain isolated. Plus, daily activities and opportunities to socialize allow seniors to form new connections and avoid the loneliness often associated with aging at home.

Senior living communities prioritize activities for social health

Activity directors at senior living communities focus on providing social opportunities to keep seniors healthy and engaged as they age. Different types of communities may offer different activities based on residents’ abilities and stages of life. For example, independent living communities may offer active, outdoor activities, while memory care communities for seniors with dementia may offer relaxing therapies.

Assisted living communities keep residents social and engaged

Assisted living communities offer numerous activities to keep seniors social and engaged. “Our calendar of purposeful activities, entertainment, and programs offered can range from six to 10 scheduled opportunities each day,” says Molly Davis Nedley, national director of entertainment and programming at Spectrum Retirement Communities.

Davis Nedley adds that staff are committed to offering a variety of programs that meet the social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and spiritual needs of residents. “We provide programs that are socially stimulating but also engaging enough for everyone at any skill level to participate in an adapted way.”

Some examples of social opportunities in assisted living communities include:

  • Restaurant-style dining. At meals, residents can enjoy creative and innovative menu options while socializing with friends, family, and team members. Dining together often improves appetite and encourages a healthy diet while offering opportunities to connect.
  • Interest-based social clubs. It’s common for communities to offer book clubs, gardening clubs, or volunteer opportunities as a way to build connections and comradery.
  • Spiritual opportunities. Communities may offer guided meditation, Bible studies, and religious services, which can foster new and meaningful relationships with peers.
  • Dancing or exercise classes. Dancing, fitness, and even teaching trending TikTok dances can be fulfilling for residents, Davis Nedley says. Learning these dances have raised spirits and heart rates while keeping residents feeling young, active, and connected.
  • Live entertainment. Whether it’s listening to a choir performance during the holidays, a fun night with a local singer-songwriter, or an excursion to a play, museum, or concert, there are many creative ways that communities entertain and facilitate socialization.
  • Creative pursuits. Communities may offer pottery and painting classes, or just give friends the opportunity to express their creativity through crafts.

“Watching new residents adapt to the social benefits inside our communities has been such a gift. They learn that the missing piece might have been as simple as finding a sense of belonging,” Davis Nedley says.

Independent living promote an active, social lifestyle

Independent living communities are designed for healthy, active seniors who generally could live on their own but prefer the convenience of a maintenance-free lifestyle among peers.

Social activities are a cornerstone of independent living. Offerings appeal to a variety of interests and preferences. Whether your loved one is interested in staying fit, learning a new skill, continuing to pursue pre-retirement passions, or simply making new friends, they’ll be able to find independent living activities that fit their needs.

In addition to the assisted living activities listed above, independent living communities may offer:

  • Trips to local shopping and entertainment centers
  • Hiking, biking, or bird-watching clubs
  • Outings to restaurants
  • Planned trips to other towns or cities
  • Local community service opportunities
  • Tennis, golf, or swimming leagues

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Memory care communities meet the social needs of seniors with dementia

Memory care provides housing and 24-hour care for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. These communities often have unique layouts and programs to improve quality of life, prevent wandering, and slow the progress of cognitive decline.

Memory care activities differ from those offered in independent and assisted living in that they’re designed to meet each resident’s social needs at every stage of dementia. Many activities are therapeutic and strive to keep seniors both calm and engaged as they connect with memories from the past.

Some of these pastimes include:

  • Music therapy, with instruments and records
  • Reminiscence therapy, using personal photo albums and treasured possessions
  • Art therapy, to offer a creative outlet
  • Scent therapy, to reduce agitation, boost mood, and improve sleep
  • Games and crafts for all skill levels

How to help your loved one maintain a social life in senior living

Not everyone is an extrovert who wants to be around others constantly. “Socializing means different things to different people — it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Kotwal says. “It’s important for people to consider what would be meaningful socialization for them and to work with their medical professionals to make social goals part of their traditional medical goals.”

In addition to group activities, senior living communities often have libraries, gardens, media rooms, and other personal spaces people can enjoy solo if the mood strikes. “No matter our age, some of us will always prefer an independent art class versus a social wine tasting with others, and the good news is that there is an engaging opportunity for everyone,” Davis Nedley says.

It can be helpful to learn about your loved one’s unique socialization preferences and find communities that meet their needs. For example, some communities may begin a new club just for them or host a specific activity that matches their personal interests or hobbies.

If you think senior living could help your loved one remain social and avoid isolation, reach out to one of our 400 free, local senior living experts. They can guide you through the process of finding the right fit for your family.

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “How do Older Americans Spend Their Time?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions.

BMC Geriatrics. “Understanding the care and support needs of older people.

Author
Merritt Whitley

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