Social Connection and Your Health
The importance of social connection for seniors is not new. But, it does have new meaning.
The biological need for socialization dates back to the 1940’s when Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid concluded that humans need to feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, and connection to other people, not just family. Without it, people become susceptible to loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
Countless research studies published well before the pandemic support the neurological science behind social connection in combating loneliness and promoting brain health. Today these reports have even deeper meaning as seniors are faced with ongoing isolation to prevent exposure to COVID-19.
A recent study published in the July issue of The Scientist (four months into the social distancing mandates of the pandemic) explains the brain science behind social isolation and connects the chronic feelings of loneliness with unsatisfactory sleep, less physical activity, high blood pressure, compromised immune systems and declining cognitive function.
“The sort of isolation seniors are experiencing right now is unprecedented, and is compounded with other pressures, such as fear of disease and financial strain,” explains Stephanie Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist at the University of Chicago. “We’re a social species. We need others to survive.”
A key goal of continuing care retirement communities is to foster engagement and connection through the campus design, programs and services. The value of this grows as we become older and often face more physical limitations and lose existing social networks.
How socialization improves emotional health and well being
Well-run senior living communities follow a philosophy of multi-dimensional wellness, starting with creating a community environment where people feel safe, and ensuring that the programs and events they offer touch on physical, mental, social, emotional, and cognitive well-being.
Residents’ vocations are also incorporated into the communities’ offerings as they work with campus administration to create clubs and initiatives on issues they are passionate about. Youth mentoring and tutoring, wildlife conservation, delivering Meals on Wheels, and protecting the Chesapeake Bay are just a few areas where Asbury residents have used their professional experience to create something new at the community they join. Providing additional opportunities for seniors to stay engaged in the world around them and feeling purposeful are positive side effects of the expanded social networks they gain after moving.
Think of socializing as a whole-body exercise for the mind. It’s not just about doing one thing, it’s about doing many things in many ways – recalling memories, having conversations, meeting someone who shares the same interest, listening and thinking about responses, and reading reactions and recognizing emotions. Joining in a group event, even if it is online, or conversing one-on-one gets a lot of gears moving in the brain, with positive effects on your overall wellness.
Better nutrition – Seniors who stay social are more likely to eat more regularly, maintaining a better diet and keeping their body powered for activity, which in turn contributes to better overall physical health. (The Journals of Gerontology®)
Better sleep – Seniors who are feeling less lonely tend to keep better routines and sleep schedules, which helps to optimize their physical wellness. (National Institute on Aging)
Better physical function – Seniors who keep socially active, including exploring new social opportunities, tend to be physically more active thanks in part to the format of many social activities like walking groups, aerobics, crafting, and more. These bodies in motion experience additional health benefits such as lower blood pressure, less joint stiffness, slower loss of bone or muscle tissue, better circulation which also benefits their brain, and boosted immune systems. (Mather Institute Age Well Study)
Better cognitive function – Seniors who maintain communication with others are more likely to maintain cognitive function for longer than those who do not engage in forms of communication regularly. (Sanford Health)
Better mood – Seniors who engage in social connections several times a week tend to be happier, keep a lighter mood, feel less stressed and more supported, are more confident, and maintain a more positive outlook. (The Harvard Study on Aging)
What socializing looks like when seniors should also be isolating
Asbury strives to maintain retirement lifestyles full of activity, socialization and purpose for their residents, offering countless opportunities to make new friends, strengthen family bonds and do more of what they enjoy.
The goal, even before COVID-19, is to enable and empower residents to live a socially engaging and purposeful life for longer. In a recent article published in McKnights Senior Living, Doug Leidig, President and CEO of Asbury talks about the team of professionals at Asbury and the residents they serve.
“After more than 30 years in this field, I’ve seen our associates’ determination to put residents’ needs first countless times. I’ve seen the incredible dedication they have to one another,” Leidig explains. “Throughout this crisis, I continue to hear stories that are inspiring. Although seniors are more vulnerable to COVID-19, they are talented, civic-minded people, and many are getting busy helping as they can.” Asbury has responsibly taken steps specifically to address the need for safe socialization during the COVID-19 pandemic that do not put their residents or associates at a heightened risk.
Examples of safe social distancing socialization include:
- Wellness teams are creating Facebook Live meditation classes, and recording or live streaming events and classes via campus TV channels and apps.
- Residents are holding small, physically-distanced birthday and tea parties and happy hours, continuing to hold community committee meetings via Zoom, walking, and gardening in their community plots.
- Wellness teams are getting creative with email to send daily brain puzzles, schedule virtual cruises with daily ports of call to far-off destinations, and share online learning and exploration sites and tools.
- Communities are bringing in performers for outdoor concerts and scheduling virtual concerts with local talent
- Associates are creating parties on a cart and going to door-to-door to deliver ice cream or pick-your-own candy, cocktails or wine and chocolate, and brain puzzles.
“Our work is making a difference. We are all in this together, and at Asbury and all across senior living, both associates and residents are embracing this spirit. I have never been prouder to be part of this profession,” adds Leidig.
Asbury residents and associates continue to wear face masks and use stringent sanitization protocols. Especially while physical distancing is an important and necessary precaution, Asbury’s wellness teams are essential assets for socialization and friendship. Residents and associates always mention the strong, family-like bonds they create with each other as one of the best parts of living and working at an Asbury community.
“Feeling socially isolated can be as toxic to healthy brains and bodies as smoking,” says Laura L. Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Longevity Center. “It’s important to find the right environment that provides the right kind of social engagement and connection. Especially for seniors.”
Research shows these Top 10 benefits of social engagement
- Higher levels of social support and lower levels of loneliness
- Positive perceptions of social relationships lead to higher levels of overall health
- Loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation
- Social environments stimulate important brain functions that impact overall wellness
- Isolation by living alone can lead to cognitive decline
- Social stimulation promotes brain health
- Greater feeling of neighborhood cohesion enhance mental well-being
- Staying active in social settings promotes more focus on physical wellness and nutrition
- Social settings improve mood and happiness
- Social happiness improves sleep quality
With a 90-plus year legacy of serving seniors, Asbury Communities understands the importance of socialization – and other key factors to aging well. Recently, this experience and expertise was recognized when Chief Operating Officer Sue DaCamara was appointed to the International Council on Active Aging COVID-19 Senior Living Task Force, a group of more than 100 leaders across multiple professions impacting senior living. “It is an honor to join this coalition to chart a path forward,” DaCamara says. “Exploring new value propositions and innovating new health and wellness opportunities for those we serve – residents and associates – is more important than ever before.”
As Asbury continues into the next century of service, it will continue to make resident well-being and safety top priorities. Moving to a senior living community before you ‘need’ to is the best way to develop a strong social network and benefit from the community’s focus on wellness and engagement. Learn how Asbury communities are continuing to provide social, wellness-focused opportunities for residents by contacting a retirement counselor today or by contacting us through our online form here!