The numbers are coming in about a rising problem with social connectedness among older adults. It's not about their social status, as it might have been in younger years. Rather, it's about how entrenched they are in robust social networks. Do they have enough social resources to stay safely independent? Do they feel connected and secure?
The answers to those questions can have startling implications for their health.
Once again, we turn for insight to AARP Foundation's Walter Woods, a vice president, programs-Isolation Impact Area. He rattles off the data - that lack of close personal connections raises the odds of dying early (almost as much as poverty does the same); that our bodies don't like being alone and tell us in a thousand ways -- through higher blood pressure, more stress hormone, greater inflammation, poor sleep and depression.
Clearly, people didn't evolve to be alone but rather to survive and thrive in tight-knit social groups. But as we get older, those groups can break down due to sickness, disability, even death. As a result, nearly one out of five older adults lives alone-and those folks are at risk of declining faster both mentally and physically. Even when older people are partnered up, the demands of caregiving may take over and reduce the level of meaningful communication. That "lonely in a crowd" feeling is alienating.
Yet most of us live in a culture that values independence and self-reliance. Does that make it hard for people to connect the dots between connectedness and health?
Not necessarily, says Woods. "People often intuitively get it -- usually because they can almost immediately think of someone in their lives who may be isolated and who they worry about," he responded. "Still, it can be useful to offer up some examples of how social connectedness can affect health because they make a lot of sense once you think about them.
"Networks, for instance, aren't just valuable in the professional world. Your relationships with people have real value in terms of the information, resources, and support they provide. Your friend could be the one who encourages you to go to the doctor when you might be reluctant, tells you about local programs and activities you might not know about, or helps you recover from an illness," he adds.
Which means connectedness, rather than signaling dependence, could actually foster independence. What's more, a connected person not only gets help, but also gives help, boosting self-esteem and social status.
So... what are we going to do about it? We hear so much about eating right and exercising to improve our health and longevity. Now we're being told to strengthen our social selves. Is that easier or harder? Woods thinks the latter.
"'Make a new friend' is much less straightforward than 'eat more vegetables,'" he points out. "There still aren't a lot of solutions being offered.
"At AARP Foundation, we've been testing a variety of programs that work to reconnect older adults to their families and communities because it's one thing to know you should try to connect more, as well as more deeply, and another to thing to know where to start."
He cites the role of chance in making friends, of needing to be right place at the right time, meeting the right person. It sounds like what we heard when we were young, single and ready to mingle.
"If you focus on exploring and doing activities that interest and challenge and excite you," says Woods, "not only can you stay active and interested in life, but what better way is there to meet potential friends?"
But what if those friends come with their own troubles? My peers used to joke about old people sitting around the pool in Florida, griping about their infirmities. Now that I think about it, we seem to be joking less as the years go by...and could that be griping I hear? I ask Woods, are those around-the-pool discussions a Seinfeld episode come to life or are they socially supportive?
Both, he speculates. "Let's face it-getting old can be hard," he says. "It's physically and emotionally difficult to age and to begin to ache frequently and watch your capabilities shrink. Perhaps complaining serves two important functions.
"First, as we deal with the aging process-or with any large challenge in life-we need and want sympathy and care. It's human nature to want support and understanding.
"Second, maybe this type of complaining serves a role in terms of the type of information exchange among networks. When you start experiencing a new ache or problem, it seems natural to want some feedback-to hear your friend tell you that it seems normal and is probably nothing to worry about or that it sounds unusual and might be worth taking to a doctor.
"Of course, that's all speculation," he says, "but it seems more logical than the pervasive myth that older people just like to complain."
So gripe away, but try to move it out of the complaint department and onto a more productive path.
Finally, your demographics may deem you more or less likely to be vulnerable to isolation. For example, Woods says that though there isn't good data yet on the differences in social isolation for older men and women, practitioners often make some assumptions.
One big assumption is that men and women may suffer differently when a partner becomes ill or dies, men because they've depended on women to run their social lives, women because they may have a greater need for social engagement (so being alone just feels worse).
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are at particular risk for isolation due to a range of factors, including discrimination and higher rates of poverty and living alone. Woods recommends SAGE and the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging ) as two great organizations addressing this issue.
Finally, people living with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable to isolation, Woods notes. Discrimination plays a role, as do problems with transportation and accessibility. "Even when public spaces meet the minimum regulatory requirements for access, they still often overlook universal design principles that would make them more friendly and accessible for people of all ages and abilities," Woods says.
My book highlights universal design as a key way to make the home more accessible to residents and guests. In the public sphere, advocacy and political pressure may eventually bear fruit.
In my next post, we'll talk about some things people can do at any age, including the use of technology, to make and enjoy new social connections. Until then, think about your social life as another rich resource to mine for healthy and productive aging.
Have you noticed that feeling connected or lonely may affect your physical health? How would you go about making new friends to carry forward in your life? How can we make friendship more like flossing every day?