When Jacksonville resident Margaret Pashko moved from Southern California two years ago, she faced more than relocation. Recently widowed, she was adapting to retirement after a long and busy career, leaving her home of 50 years for new digs in Southern Oregon, and had put great distance between herself and her family and longtime social circle. She was alone.
Then, on a whim, having heard about opportunities available through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a national educational program with a chapter at Southern Oregon University, she signed on for some of the program's classes, eventually taking a more active role in the program, and found some community organizations to get involved in.
Not only did Pashko make some connections and new friends, she may very well have extended her life.
According to research at Brigham Young University, isolation can do more than cause sadness — it can kill. The BYU researchers found that people who are involved with others improve their survival odds by 50 percent. Loneliness, the study found, has the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more risky than not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity.
While Pashko knew the importance of creating a new social circle and staying active, researchers and health care professionals say that for too many seniors retirement and aging can lead to isolation and depression — the physical ailments that go along with both.
"It could have been a very daunting situation for me with so much change. How do you meet people at age 65? I had lots of friends where I had lived. When I made the big move, I realized it was harder to meet people when you're older," Pashko said.
"It was a big move, and I'm glad I did it, but a lot of people said, 'How could you go to a new area and sell your house after losing your husband?' I think I was just particularly fortunate. Being somebody without a spouse and all that jazz, I feel very fortunate and grateful for the connections I was able to find."
Rogue Valley family physician Barbara North says Pashko's situation was ideal. Too often retirees fall into a cycle of reduced activity, which leads to reduced social contact and then to increased physical ailments. Once their health deteriorates, they're even less likely to become involved.
"Too often, we don't equate emotional well-being to physical well-being, but they're connected in a lot of important ways," North said. "In terms of just isolation, it's kind of the opposite of stress. It's a deficiency of stimulation and responsibility
"Another factor is, when folks get a little bit older, they can't keep up as well physically and tend to be left out of things or left alone. I really do believe that when you stop moving, that's almost the definition of social isolation. If you're not moving around in the world, your arteries clog, blood pressure goes up. The mental health side of it is your brain misses having that activity."
Retired nurse Sandy Theis, after a busy career, knew before retirement how much she would value continued community connections and staying active.
A council member for OLLI, Theis participates in community organizations such as American Association of University Women, Rogue Valley Council of Governments Senior Advisory Council and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and she encourages other seniors to find their own niche to stay engaged in the world around them.
"I think it's important to be involved in the community in general, but it's also important for your own health. I've been retired for some time now and was quite active in my work life so, I think, going from being very active to virtually nothing would have been a real shock," said Theis, 76.
"It's important to be able to continue to develop and provide some of those skills that I had in the workplace. It's different for everyone, but I knew that I needed to find an outlet to be able to continue to contribute. I enjoy the groups I am involved in, and they have a broader sense of purpose in serving the community."
The words "sense of purpose" are echoed by Julianne Holt-Lunstead, a BYU researcher and lead author of the study.
"When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility for other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks."
Retired Mail Tribune copy editor Ellen Wakefield found her sense of purpose in helping children. During her working years, Wakefield was an original volunteer when the Rogue Valley SMART reading program launched in 1995 in Medford. Eventually named a site coordinator for Jackson Elementary School, she admits to considering a break in recent years, but quickly changed her mind.
"There was a period of time when I thought, after three or four years of being a coordinator, maybe I just wanted to be a reader. So I took a year off from coordinating. I liked the reading, but it didn't take long before I wanted to get back to being a coordinator again," she noted.
Retired 11 years now, Wakefield said her contributions to the community do give her that sense of purpose.
"I love the SMART program, and I love contributing. Sometimes I'll have a day where I think, 'Why did I say I would do that?' There are always days you would rather stay home and vegetate, but it's better not to," Wakefield said.
"If you don't stay active, it's all downhill from there. I would say volunteering in any form, and staying active, for sure, is a great way to stay healthy and to stay connected to the world."
For information about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University, see www.sou.edu/olli/index.html
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.