Social connections drive well-being
This week I heard a story that goes something like this. A son arranged installation of remote-controlled window shades in his 80-year-old mother's home. The son worked for a company making those shades and wanted to test the concept.
The son lived at a distance from his mom and was very interested in what she thought of his gift. But his mother called him before he had a chance to check in with her.
"You have changed my life," she said.
This woman had been sitting in her darkened house with blinds drawn because the pull cords were too high to reach and she had a weakened grip due to arthritis. If she opened the shades, she could not easily close them, so she prioritized nighttime privacy over daytime sunlight and a view of the neighborhood.
This woman's use of "life changing" has many possible components. The light therapy that comes from sunlight is important in managing Seasonal Affective Disorder, a particular challenge for older adults. It's a type of depression whose symptoms typically occur in the fall and often last through the winter months, sapping energy and making people feel moody.
But there are other life-changing possibilities. With windows open to the world, neighborhood alliances become more likely. Perhaps a boy riding by on his bike waves when he sees someone who looks a lot like his faraway grandma at the window of her home. And she waves back. Soon she's baking his favorite cookies every week and has hired him to rake her yard. Other neighbors are encouraged by the more beckoning feeling of the house and they too visit more frequently. Soon, if this woman's window shades do not open every morning at their usual time, someone phones her or knocks at her front door to check on her.
In a May 2013 article in the journal Psychological Science, social connectivity was referred to as "driving the engine of well-being" and as a "psychological nutrient." Folks at The University of Rochester Medical Center have studied this and remind us that as we retire, the opportunities to socialize are typically lessened.
I will use myself as illustration. If I'm not heading off to work each day or out and about as much as I was previously, I miss the social interactions needed "to stay sharp, healthy and ward off dementia."
Regular social interaction has been found to build up cognitive reserve, which may slow the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Oh. My. Gosh. That alone should make me phone a friend and invite her over for coffee. (Especially, if I had already baked cookies).
The benefits of social interaction for older adults are many, including improved immune-system function (you ward off colds and the flu more easily — although washing your hands a lot and having appropriate immunizations is, of course, still important); potentially reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis; and lower blood pressure (that last one you can measure yourself.)
What are you waiting for? Phone a friend.
Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.