Seniors and Socialization: How Social Engagement in Senior Living Benefits Health

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleyMarch 15, 2021
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It’s well-known aging can create mental and physical challenges for seniors. But what’s less understood is how a lack of social opportunities may contribute to these difficulties. In fact, about half of unengaged or socially isolated seniors are at an increased risk of developing dementia or other serious medical conditions, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We are increasingly recognizing that healthy aging is not just about avoiding disease, but it’s also about maintaining active engagement in life,” says Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, assistant professor of medicine in geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco and member of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS). “Prioritizing the social well-being among seniors can not only help their health, but it can help the well-being of those around them, too,” says Kotwal.

Kotwal adds that he’s seen the largest benefit occur among older adults’ younger family members. Many senior living communities, including assisted living and memory care, prioritize social engagement and offer activities for a variety of interests. Learn more about the social needs of the elderly, the benefits of social interaction in the elderly, how senior living communities meet a variety of seniors’ social needs, and how you can help your loved one maintain a fulfilling social life.

The importance of socialization for seniors: What are the risks and benefits?

Studies show that humans are naturally social creatures who thrive from secure, safe, and social surroundings. Social disconnection can actually cause the body pain the same way hunger or thirst can. The human body can yearn for social connection the same way it does for food or water because it’s necessary to the survival of genes, according to a study titled Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms.

The benefits of social interaction in the elderly include:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  • Reduced stress and high blood pressure
  • Improved physical health

Long-term loneliness can take a toll on a person’s:

  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Behavior
  • Health

“The long-term effects of loneliness can include worsened heart disease, poor sleep and depression, the development of disability, increased risks of dementia, and even death. It is thought that this occurs through longstanding emotional distress, changes in health behaviors, and wear-and-tear on our body from an overactive physiologic stress response,” says Dr. Kotwal.

Why are seniors at a higher risk of becoming socially disengaged?

Seniors are more at risk of becoming socially isolated due to personal and health-related reasons that can become more common or difficult to deal with as we age.

“Life transitions, major life events, or changes in health can affect seniors’ experiences of loneliness,” says Dr. Kotwal. “For example, retiring from a meaningful job, moving into a new community, losing a loved one or the death of a spouse might bring on profound feelings of lacking companionship that are difficult to replace.”

As seniors age, their mobility may also decrease, as well as their ability to drive, and their general senses such as hearing or eyesight. These factors can make it more difficult to visit or interact with friends and family regularly.

How do I know if my loved one is at risk of becoming socially disengaged?

Research shows Americans spend less time hosting events or attending activities as they age. In 2018, the percentage of time spent socializing and communicating was about 11% for those age 55 to 64 and 7% for seniors age 75 and over.

It’s important to check in to see how people feel about their social lives, says Dr. Kotwal. “Medical professionals are increasingly recognizing that loneliness and social isolation can impact health and are beginning to integrate these assessments into medical visits.”

It’s not always recognized by medical professionals, so if you’re worried about the social well-being of your loved one, it’s reasonable to ask:

  • Do you feel isolated or left out?
  • Do you feel like you’re lacking companionship?
  • Do you wish you had more visitors?
  • Would you like help connecting with others?

Understanding senior isolation can also help prevent unhealthy social habits and health declines in senior loved ones.

How do senior living communities prioritize activities for social health?

Senior living communities know better than most the abundant ways to keep seniors’ minds sharp as they age and improve health through socialization. Many communities created socially distanced senior-friendly activities to keep seniors engaged even while taking COVID-19 safety precautions. Residents at a Spectrum community even played virtual bingo with Academy Award-Winning actor Matthew McConaughey.

“Our calendar of purposeful activities, entertainment, and programs offered can range from six to ten scheduled opportunities each day,” says Molly Davis Nedley, national director of entertainment and programming at Spectrum Retirement Communities

“Our teams are committed to offering a variety of programs that touch on those elements that benefit residents socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively, spiritually, and leisurely. From using a megaphone to host exercise classes outdoors to audiobook clubs, virtual music therapy sessions to outdoor movies on giant blow-up screens, and even mixology classes with a local craft house to get our cocktails “just right” -we continue to provide programs that are socially stimulating but also engaging for everyone to participate in an adapted way.”

Additional examples of social opportunities include:

  • Restaurant dining. Moving away from “restaurant-style” and embracing a true restaurant approach to create a dining experience. Residents are able to enjoy creative and innovative options from our menu while socializing with friends, family, and team members.
  • Social clubs. It’s common for communities to offer book clubs, gardening clubs, or volunteer opportunities as a way to build connections and comradery.
  • Spiritual opportunities. Communities may offer guided meditation, Bible studies, and religious services, which can foster new and meaningful relationships with peers.
  • Dancing or exercise classes. Dancing, fitness, and even teaching trending Tik Tok dances can be fulfilling for residents, says Davis Nedley. Learning these short, dances have raised spirits and heart rates while keeping residents feeling young, active, and connected.
  • Hosting live entertainment. Whether it’s listening to a choir performance during the holidays, beer flight tasting with a local singer/songwriter, or an excursion to a play, museum, or concert, there are many creative ways that communities entertain and facilitate socialization, even if it’s virtual.

“Watching new residents adapt to the social benefits inside our communities has been such a gift, as they learn that the missing piece might have been as simple as finding a sense of belonging,” says Davis Nedley.

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How can I help my loved one maintain a healthy social life in senior living communities?

Not everyone is an extrovert who wants to be around others constantly. “Socializing means different things to different people—it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Dr. Kotwal. “It’s important for people to consider what would be meaningful socialization for them and to work with their medical professionals to make social goals part of their traditional medical goals.”

In addition to group activities, senior living communities often have libraries, gardens, media rooms, and other personal spaces people can enjoy solo if the mood strikes. “No matter our age, some of us will always prefer an independent art class versus a social wine tasting with others, the good news is that there is an engaging opportunity for everyone,” says Davis Nedley.

It can be helpful to learn about your loved one’s unique socialization preferences and find communities that meet their needs. For example, some communities may begin a new club just for them, or host a specific activity that matches their personal interests or hobbies.

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Merritt Whitley
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Merritt Whitley

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