Social Participation

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”

    - John Donne from a sermon captured in Devotions (1624).

As you may know, I retired from “corporation work” a few years ago.  I went from interacting with literally dozens of customers and co-workers each day, to moving within a significantly smaller circle, composed primarily of family, friends, clients and business partners.  At the time, the prospect of moving into retirement didn’t sound so bad given the fact that our youngest daughter would soon be entering high school, my wife and I were literally ships that passed in the night, and I’ve never felt there was time for those things I'd like to do, were I to have anything resembling free time.  Being able to spend more time with family has been an enormous blessing, but it became clear to me not long thereafter that there were other facets of my life that have become more quiet than I might like.  No, I truly don’t miss working the long hours, days away from home, bureaucracy, and dealing with everyone else's agenda.  As it turns out, what I miss is the daily person-to-person interactions.  For me, the old adage of not missing the work, but missing the people was all too true.  

In reality, unless you live many miles from your nearest neighbor, there are typically no end to the opportunities you have to be social participants while simply living life.  Be it with family, friends or other like-minded individuals, we participate in life events and activities that are meaningful to us and to those we care about.  And because our social circles are typically larger when when we’re younger, raising families and perhaps in the workforce, the frequency of our social participation is exponentially greater than when are older.  Twenty or more years ago now, a friend of ours once remarked that he had sat down with a calendar and mapped out the social occasions and various other commitments for that year.  He came to the unscientific conclusion that he would have about eight weekends a year that weren’t already reserved for a commitment likely as not,  wrapped around a social activity.  And while I laughed about that at then, had I taken the time to map our social circumstances in that way, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have seen the same results.   For those reasons, it’s unusual for many of us to have too much “me” time.   And that’s looking more and more like a good thing, particularly as we age. 

When you’re not heading off to work every day, the reality is that you may be missing out on important social interactions that can serve to promote and maintain good physical &  emotional health as well as cognitive function.  Research shows us that those who find ways to continue social interactions as they age live longer than those who become isolated.  Let that soak in for a minute.  Social isolation can involve any number of factors including living alone, health related issues that may include a disability, and or sensory impairment like hearing loss or failing vision.  If the individual has lost a spouse or significant other, they may be even more susceptible to emotional and social isolation. If one truly wants to remain independent as possible within the familiar surroundings of their own home & community, one of the the worse things they can do is to socially disengage.  

Working to sustain family connections, friendships and social interaction as we age actually helps us protect against illness by boosting immune system functions.   Though not an all inclusive list, some of the specific benefits of remaining social active as you age include:

  • A potential reduction in the risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis.  
  • Lower blood pressure
  • A potential reduction in the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and mental health issues such as depression.
  • Increased self-confidence resulting from a sense of accomplishment.
  • Maintaining close friendships and being socially active helps keep you from losing cognitive function.  It’s even more effective when coupled with a overall healthy lifestyle, including proper nutrition and physical activities.  

So how does someone sustain strong connections to family & friendships and grow opportunities for social interaction as they age?  It begins by making a conscious effort to do so.  It may be easier to keep to oneself, not wanting to impose on others.  Family member or valued friends may have moved out of the immediate area, making it more difficult to stay connected.  Trust me when I say that keeping to yourself or not reaching out because someone isn't in close proximity anymore is not going to be a winning strategy if you truly want to age gracefully.   In addition, 

  • Why not volunteer within your community?  Your work and life experiences are incredibly valuable assets.  Why let that go to waste simply because you’ve stepped away for the work-a-day world?
  • Visit a senior center and get involved in the activities offered.  It’s a great way to meet new people and helps you remain a social participant.  Why not bring along a friend?
  • Join a group or club that helps you share a passion around the activities you enjoy , book clubs, woodworking groups or perhaps a charity organization.  What do you have a passion for?  
  • Take a class - learn something new or get help with rekindling an interest that may have been put to the side previously for lack for time.  Hopefully, someone has the stamina to help me with my non-existent golf swing.
  • Join a fitness program.  Staying physically fit has any number of positive health benefits and doing so with others can help keep you socially engaged.  This is vital because it helps reduce your risk of developing a disability with activities associated with daily living, as you age.  

 In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, benefits can include slowing the decline in motor function, (e.g., muscle strength), decreasing the risk of developing a disability in activities associated with daily living, improvements in memory, and helping aging adults stem symptoms of depression.  Activity-based social participation may also help the individual to gain knowledge, self-confidence and contribute significantly to their emotional well-being.  As importantly, it may allow the individual to continue building & sustaining a much needed sense of accomplishment by enabling them to continue contributing to their communities through the sharing of their energy, passion, knowledge and experience.   

I’ve made a lot of claims about the benefits of or the perils of not remaining social participants as you age.  If you’re interested in the detail and depth of research behind what I’ve shared, here’s a link to a comprehensive study published by the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba in 2013.   Or if you have a few minutes with your internet-enabled device, just google “benefits of social participation to the aging process.”  There’s a great deal of information available from any number of trusted sources like AARP, to help individuals remain a social participants and ways in which we can get started or continue doing so.  If you have roughly twenty minutes to spare, I'd like to share a video from TEDx in Des Moines from 2013.  John Cacioppo speaks to the Lethality of Loneliness.

If you’re a Senior, reach out to family and friends and look for opportunities to engage socially.  If you’re the adult child, family member, caretaker or concerned friend of a Senior, reach out.  The benefits it will afford can’t be overstated.    

As always, we’re very interested in your perspective and experiences.  Please let us know what you think.  Thanks very much for your time. 

Commission on Aging - Oak Park

Early in January, Monika and I attended the first of the regularly scheduled community forums held by Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.  The topic that evening was Aging in Oak Park.  Joining the Mayor on the panel was Lydia Manning, PhD, associate professor of Gerontology at Concordia University Chicago Center on Gerontology and former Oak Park trustee and Wednesday Journal columnist Marc Blesoff.

Marc writes on the issues of aging for the Wednesday Journal & kicked off the forum conversation with a short video that we would like to share with you. 

Among the many takeaways I had upon watching this video is that in the broadest sense for villages like Oak Park and concerned citizens groups within, there is an incredible opportunity to apply more diverse & creative thought processes to addressing the difficult issues that many elders and disabled individuals face as they look to remain actively engaged in their communities.  

There's a quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein that I think is appropriate to this conversation, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."  Applying  "different thinking" to the challenges of aging and for those living with disabilities in communities like Oak Park is a cornerstone of the services provided by Living Fully At Home.  Recognizing this as an important initiative, we've volunteered our expertise and experience to assist the efforts of the Mayor and Oak Park Trustees with the Commission on Aging they're planning to launch in the near future.  More on this later. 

As the conversation progressed, another of the issues that stood out to me was the need to continually communicate the ready availability of relevant Township services to those individuals who would most benefit from them.  There were stories shared by neighbors who didn't know about services like transportation and meal services offered by the Oak Park Township.  In addition, the Township also offers a number of additional services including case management.  If you live in Oak Park Township and are interested in learning more about the services it provides for Seniors, please click here.  You can also inquire by phone at (708) 383-8005.  

One more thing on thinking differently.  It's important that we "think differently" especially when we're looking to solve problems because that's how we innovate.  Thinking differently is really the definition of innovation.  It will take innovative thinking to solve the problems facing those wishing to remain safe, active, and productive as they age or are presented with disability.  

What do you think about the information shared in the video?  I'm also interested in hearing ideas  you might have on reaching Seniors with information like the services the Township provides.  The individuals who participated in the Mayor's forum were likely "connected" in some way, shape or form, yet there were a significant number who had no idea the Township provided transportation or meal services.  And this isn't meant as a criticism of the Township, but an opportunity to help find innovative ways to get the message of their services out in as effective a manner as possible because it's vitally important to the health and well-being of a number of seniors in our community.  


Thanks very much for your time...


Creating and Recreating Home: Options for Aging in Community.

In late November, Monika and I attended the Arbor West Neighbors forum at the Oak Park Public Library titled "Creating and Recreating Home:  Options for Aging in Community."   Arbor West Neighbors is a grassroots, inter-generational organization of neighbors connecting to empower adults to thrive as they age in the community.  Their goal is to support the residents of Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, and Austin who desire to age in the home of their choice through the promotion of an age-integrated society that recognizes the voices, power, and needs of engaged adults.  You can learn more about Arbor West Neighbors by clicking here.  

The forum was broken up into a pair of panel discussions lead by a variety of subject matter experts, housing advocates and village resources, followed by a number of smaller group conversations, leveraging the audience, that continued to share ideas around topics like cooperative housing, adaptive re-use, and alternative housing opportunities for consideration in the overarching conversation around aging in suburban communities like Oak Park.  

I joined the group discussing "tiny homes", a conversation facilitated by Paul Schultz, the designer and builder of the Toybox tiny home.  Where zoning convention allows, tiny homes are becoming increasingly popular home options for those wishing to live more simply and affordably.  The conversation at our table focused on the kinds of options and opportunities that might exist around the utilization of a tiny housing strategy within a village like Oak Park.  That included blocks of houses on open properties, multi-story tiny housing and using the footprint as a model for a coach house on the properties with larger footprints.  This was just one of a number of discussions around the opportunity to think differently as it regards solving the problems of a population wishing to age in place. 

Living Fully At Home has opted to become a member of Arbor West Neighbors and we're looking forward to supporting the programs, advocacy activities and events like the recent housing forum.  If you have an interest in helping empower seniors or disabled individuals as they seek to continue living in their communities, we'd highly recommend seeking out groups like Arbor West Neighbors.