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Good friends and strong community ties are keys to healthy aging — even in a time of social distancing.
What’s one possible secret to good health? It goes beyond just eating well, staying active, and keeping up to date with your preventive care screenings. You know all that. The stealthy remedy? Strong relationships.
Turns out, the more connected you are to your network of family and friends, the healthier and happier you’ll be and the longer you’ll likely live, according to research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations. Here’s what every older adult needs to know.
How Loneliness Triggers Health Problems
There are dozens of good reasons to stay connected. In 2017, a Harvard Medical School report of findings from an 80-year-long study showed that strong social ties are a better predictor of a long, happy life than good genes.
Do you have a good social network? If you do, your risk of early death is 50% lower, notes a 2017 report in American Psychologist. Have you been socially active in your 50s and 60s? Great — you’re not only lowering your risk of dementia later, but also boosting your immune system and reducing your chance of developing heart disease, reports the NIH and a team of researchers in the U.K.
The science is in: Good relationships are good for your health. The NIH notes that they’re an even more powerful determinant of well-being than going to the gym, losing weight, or quitting smoking.
The problem is, during the current public health emergency, lots of people just don’t have those all-important social connections, based on a new report from the Pew Research Center. And it’s often worse for the nearly 14 million older adults who live alone.
But loneliness is more than just being alone. While it’s common to use the terms “loneliness” and “social isolation” interchangeably, they’re actually two different things.
Isolation is a physical separation from other people. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotion you can experience even in a crowded room or in the midst of a busy household. Some people report feeling lonely in an unhappy marriage or when they’re among friends they no longer feel close to; others are perfectly content to be all by themselves.
Feelings of loneliness are on the rise. In a 2019 survey of 10,000 Americans, 61% reported feeling lonely, up from 54% just a year earlier. And loneliness can affect you in all kinds of ways — from making a bad cold feel worse to thwarting a good night’s sleep. It can even increase your stroke risk by a whopping 32%, according to a 2016 report in the journal Heart.
That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news: If your relationships with friends and family aren’t as numerous or as strong as you’d like them to be, now is the time to nurture some new connections.
5 Strategies to Strengthen Your Connections
There’s no one-size-fits-all loneliness cure, but here are some ideas to get you started. Try one — or a few — and see what happens.
1. Make the most of technology. The current coronavirus pandemic has made us all more tech savvy. While you continue to practice social distancing, sending quick texts is an easy way to keep in touch with friends and relatives.
Take it up a notch by visiting with friends near and far via video chats. In a 2016 Michigan State University study, older adults who connected with friends electronically felt less loneliness and a greater sense of well-being.
Not sure how to get started? There are free apps that guide you through all the basics of using a tablet or smartphone, including how to get started with video calls. Of course, you can always call a family member or neighbor for some tech help, too.
When your local library opens up again — and your local health officials say it’s safe to go out for more than just essential items — check the public events listing for tech programs for seniors. Bonus: more people to interact with.
2. Lend a hand. A great way to make new friends and strengthen old friendships is to volunteer, and you don’t need to leave home to do it these days.
There are groups that pair mentors with students from low-income communities through online and video chats, for example. Or you could help veterans and their spouses prep for new jobs by becoming a mock interviewer by video call or providing job search advice via email. For more ideas, check out volunteermatch.org.
3. Join a virtual club. When you find folks with a common interest, it’s easy to make friends. If you’re comfortable using Facebook, search the Facebook Groups tab to connect with others who share your interests and hobbies.
When social-distancing guidelines ease up and health officials give the greenlight for older adults to go out and about again, you can look for local groups to join — a book club, woodworking group, or a knitting circle, perhaps. Check your community center for ideas.
4. Move your body. Everyone knows exercise is good for you. It not only helps you lose weight and keeps chronic concerns like diabetes and blood pressure under control, but also boosts energy and improves mood, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And keeping a physical distance doesn’t mean you can’t meet a friend for a walk. Just make sure that you walk where you can keep six feet in between, and wear a mask. You can also look into local fitness programs. In a 2018 MIT AgeLab study, people who joined a fitness club for older adults made more social connections and experienced less loneliness.
5. Leave your comfort zone — just a little. Feeling a little shy? That’s okay. There are anxiety-free strategies for easing into a new friendship.
Granted, this will be a little bit easier once the pandemic has passed. But if you’re out in the yard pulling weeds or picking up the mail, consider inviting a new neighbor over for a quick porch sit — taking care to keep your masks on and remain at least six feet apart.
Making new friends doesn’t have to be a big production — there are opportunities everywhere you look. And if an invitation comes your way, say yes!
Live Your Best Life
Your emotional health matters. Renew’s emotional health resources are designed to inspire and empower you to live your life to the fullest. Learn more here.