For years, researchers have known that everyone benefits from socialization —regardless of age or gender. We've all seen the tragic videos of neglected orphans who failed to grow and develop because they were kept in isolation and deprived of interaction with others. According to functional magnetic resonance imaging studies, or fMRI studies, it's become common knowledge that adults, particularly the elderly, need the same sort of social stimulation that infants do. In fact, feeling alone can actually be worse than feeling annoyed or harassed. Why? Feeling isolated activates many of the same areas of the brain involved in physical pain.
Unfortunately, after reaching retirement age (and when others leave the household), many seniors find themselves spending way too much time alone. This is particularly true if they are no longer able to drive or have other transportation issues. But in order to maintain a sense of belonging, stay happy and keep their minds sharp, seniors really need to find a reliable way to socialize with others on a regular basis.
When the American Academy of Neurology examined the relationship between dementia, socialization and stress, it discovered that "people who are socially active and not easily stressed may be less likely to develop dementia." Since it is estimated that as many as 1 in 7 Americans over the age of 71 have dementia, these findings are important. And even though some researchers feel that memory problems or symptoms of depression are more likely to appear among those over the age of 70 than among younger individuals, this doesn't have to be the case.
To avoid mental isolation, seniors must commit to remaining socially active and do whatever it takes to avoid feeling lonely. The latest research indicates that an active post-retirement social life can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, lower levels of depression and minimize physiological pain symptoms — among other things. Approximately 7 million people over the age of 65 experience some level of depression. The importance of consistent human contact and interaction cannot be underestimated.
I recently experienced a very mild taste of what it feels like to be prevented from enjoying the company of others. As you know, for the past 28 years I have been wheelchair-dependent, so my transportation involves a handicap van with a ramp. As luck would have it, one night some misguided burglars ignored the disability designation on the van's license plate and proceeded to break in and try to steal it. The good news is, their efforts to hot-wire the vehicle failed; the bad news is, they damaged both the ignition and steering column of the van. My only form of transportation was at the repair shop for two weeks, and I was unable to leave my house for physical therapy appointments, shopping and visits with friends. Obviously, this was not a tragic situation, but everything seemed so different when I couldn't leave home and feel like I was a part of normal life. Fortunately, my van has now been fixed, and I am once again able to get out and about four days a week.
The fastest-growing age group of elders in America is those who are 85 years old and older, which leads experts to conclude that community-based services must step in when or where family members cannot. According to a recent AARP article, "The number of Americans without any close confidants has increased dramatically in the past 20 years." This is a clear indication that whatever our age, we all need to be proactive about building and maintaining social connections.
To defeat loneliness and isolation among the elderly, programs that go beyond basic meal delivery or brief impersonal visitations are needed. Today, there are approximately 15,000 senior citizen centers scattered across the U.S. that offer programs ranging from leisure activities (journaling, singing groups, etc.) to volunteering to educational opportunities. Additionally, according to the National Adult Day Services Association, as of 2010 there were more than 4,600 adult day care centers nationwide that offer activities designed to provide social support and health services to older adults.
The bottom line is that feeling lonely or being lonely needs to be avoided at any age, but especially at this stage of our lives.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.