Growing older can be a difficult experience. With the population living longer than ever before, one of the most important keys to aging well is remaining connected to family and community. Social isolation and loneliness are barriers to staying as physically and mentally healthy as possible. In fact, research has shown that having more — or better quality — social and supportive relationships is related to decreased mortality. In fact, making an effort to connect with others at any age is a great investment in making our older years better.
Get out there
If you are a member of the workforce and older than 65, you’re in a good starting position. Getting out of your home, going to work and interacting with people several times a week creates opportunities to foster new relationships and opportunities for social activities. Meeting after work for coffee or taking a walk with a coworker on a day off can be better than medicine when it comes to helping with that feeling of loneliness that accompanies long stretches of time alone.
If you’ve already boarded the retirement train, consider looking for a part-time job in an area that interests you, or think about becoming a volunteer. There’s real benefit to looking outward and helping others — especially younger generations who will be caring for us in our older age.
Before getting started, identify any physical limitations. If you have problems with walking or balance, contact your health care provider for an evaluation of your limits and possible resources for helping you improve your physical health before taking on any new challenge.
Not interested in committing to a job or volunteer position right now? Check out your community event calendar online or in the newspaper and see what’s going on out there. You may also want to think about signing up for an adult education class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Penn State at olli.psu.edu.
Just as we might be saving for a financially healthy retirement, middle age is also a good time to plan for how we can grow our interests and passions in our older age. While it may be difficult to find time for hobbies while working and tending to a younger family, keeping your interests alive now will help when you have the time to enjoy them more later in life.
What to watch
While strategies for staving off social isolation — and the loneliness that can be associated with it — are important, it’s also essential to recognize that there is a high rate of depression among seniors. Depression in seniors is sometimes confused with the effects of an illness or the side effects of medications. Risk factors for depression in the elderly include stressful life events such as losing a spouse or good friend, being single, unmarried, divorced or widowed, and the lack of a supportive social network.
Physical illnesses and conditions such as stroke, diabetes, cancer, dementia and chronic pain are also risk factors for depression. Symptoms of depression can include feelings of hopelessness, irritability and restlessness, lack of interest in activities or hobbies that were once enjoyable, and physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems or thoughts of suicide. If you or a senior you know have symptoms of depression, it is important to see your health care provider immediately for a thorough evaluation and treatment if indicated. If you are in crisis, call 800-643-5432. The Can Help crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Remember, living our best lives as we age takes engagement and involvement in a number of areas. Finding ways to stay connected with our families and communities is key. It is also important to be in close contact with our health care providers to be sure we are physically and mentally well enough to do the things we can do to make our older years the best we can.
Susan Trainor, CRNP, CDE, is a provider with Mount Nittany Physician Group Endocrinology and chronic care coordinator for Mount Nittany Health.