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The Importance of Social Interaction for Healthy Aging

GOL enhancedBy Luciana Mitzkun Cramer

Family Services Director, Friendship Center

We humans are inherently social creatures, so it’s no surprise that social activity helps keep us physically and mentally healthy as we age.

The importance of social interaction has been well-documented in multiple studies throughout the world—linked to reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. It has also been shown to lower occurrence of mental health issues such as depression and to slow the progress of memory loss.

People involved in regular social activities are up to 50% less likely to demonstrate cognitive decline than those who are lonely or isolated. And University of Michigan researchers found that even 10 minutes of daily social interaction can improve cognitive performance!

In addition, those who regularly participate in social activities are more likely to exercise, engage in intellectual activities such as reading, and observe healthy eating habits.
On the other hand, social isolation has been associated with depression, high blood pressure, and greater risk of death.

Social interaction is therefore an important factor in healthy aging. If you want to stay in good health as you age, it is crucial to stay connected!

Seniors may have opportunities for social activities such as golfing, dancing, playing games, clubs and church groups, volunteer activities, interacting with neighbors and friends, and seeing children, grandchildren, and other family members.

Unfortunately, seniors often face circumstances that interfere with their ability to seek social interactions, such as grief related to the loss of a spouse or close friends, physical conditions affecting mobility, increased pain levels, hearing loss, financial changes in retirement, and a decreased sense of security in a fast-paced, changing world. Family members are not always nearby, and for many seniors, family visits are restricted to selected holidays only. For seniors, socializing is often not easy and thus, they are at risk of becoming socially isolated.

People affected with any form of memory loss, such as those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia, find themselves at even greater risk of social isolation. Memory decline often causes depression and apathy, making them less likely to seek out social interactions. Senior community centers are not prepared to attend to the unique needs of people affected with memory loss. In social settings, they may feel uncomfortable when not able to remember names or follow conversations, further reducing their capacity for visiting with friends and enjoying social activities. In addition, caregivers often report an exodus of long-time friends, who—not understanding memory loss issues—stop calling, or extending and accepting invitations.

In most cases, due to these factors, people affected with memory loss experience an extreme reduction in social contact. The caregiver is often the only person the senior has any opportunity to socialize with.

Depending on a single person for social interaction has a direct negative consequence for the health of the person with memory loss. The lack of social interactions contributes to increased memory loss and accelerated progression of dementia. It also causes dementia patients to develop co-dependent behaviors, most notably shadowing, when patient relentlessly follows caregiver and only feels comfortable when caregiver is nearby. Indirectly, it also affects caregivers, who experience higher levels of stress and fatigue when caring for a loved one who shadows. Shadowing and caregiver burn-out are among the factors contributing to early institutionalization for people with dementia.

Socialization is an important component in the fight against cognitive decline and dementia, regardless of underlying cause. Patients with MCI, Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, Vascular, Frontotemporal, and other forms of dementia all benefit from habitual social interaction. As opportunities for previous types of social opportunities decline, adult day centers become the most important social outlet for those patients.

This is why adult day centers such as Friendship Center are so important for our community. They provide much-needed opportunities for social contact to people experiencing memory loss and other health conditions, who otherwise would be spending most of their time alone. At day centers, members participate in life-enriching programs including music, arts, physical exercise, dance, and cognitively stimulating activities. Participants enjoy finding companionship, friendship, and camaraderie in a safe and nurturing environment where they are greeted and addressed with dignity and respect.

Friendship Center is a non-profit organization and a model of social settings for seniors at risk for isolation. Participation in its activities also provides much-needed respite to caregivers, lowering their stress and reducing the risk of shadowing and other behavioral problems. Many caregivers refer to Friendship Center as a life-saver whose programs have allowed them to regain a sense of normalcy and better cope with the stressors of dementia caregiving. As reported in our annual Client Satisfaction Survey, the use of Friendship Center’s services has helped delay participants’ institutionalization for an average of three years.

With two sites in Montecito and Goleta, Friendship Center has socially-based programs for all levels of cognitive abilities. From Brain Fitness classes, designed to improve brain capacity for healthy aging adults, to Connections, an ongoing brain strengthening lab for memory enhancement, to our day program for those affected with memory loss and other health conditions who need supervision, care, and social interaction—Friendship Center’s services can help seniors remain healthy and active!

Call Friendship Center or an adult day center near you and ask about available services. Do not let social isolation escalate your problems with memory loss, or contribute to your loved one’s health problems. Lack of social interaction can reduce longevity. Participation in adult day programs is the safest and most effective way of reducing seniors’ risk of social isolation.

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