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.