Does the thought of taking a bus seem daunting enough to keep you at home? Do you see your kids and grandkids only around the holidays or when they do a grocery run for you? Are the only people you see regularly on a TV set?
If you’re upwards of 55–60 and answered yes to the above questions, you are not, pardon the pun, alone.
A recent study in the Journal of Primary Prevention, entitled “A Review of Social Isolation,” noted that nearly 43% of seniors who lived within the general community (as opposed to seniors-only communities) may suffer from social isolation, “a state in which the individual lacks a sense of belonging socially, lacks engagement with others, has a minimal number of social contacts, and is deficient in fulfilling and quality relationships.”
Should we take this seriously, or is it just another new “condition” invented by the media and big pharma to put us on another “magic pill” to cure it?
According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older.” The study found that socially isolated individuals are at increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease infectious illnesses, cognitive deterioration and mortality. Social isolation also has been associated with elevated levels of blood pressure, C-reactive protein and fibrinogen, as well as with heightened inflammatory and metabolic responses to stress.
The reasons for this are manifold; for one, if you’re scared of taking the bus, you may put away the visit to the doctor. Lack of engagement with other people reduces your brain’s need to plan, understand, rationalize, and argue, and this could lead to cognitive decline. Not being able to discuss your worries and concerns can literally increase the “burden” on your heart. Above all, being social creatures, isolation has system-wide effects on human beings and can cause us to literally die sooner!
Dr. John Cacioppo, Professor at the University of Chicago, who has studied social isolation for more than 25 years, says, “When you take a social animal…whether it be a fruit fly or a rodent or a dog or a horse… when you take one and isolate that animal, they die earlier.”
So what can you do? Here are 5 simple things that you can do to keep isolation at bay and stay “plugged in” to life!
Familiarize yourself with the public transport in your area. Pick a simple route, from your home to say, your friend’s home, and take it one day. Give yourself a treat when you are done. Check with your local community center for help in planning and executing this. Ruth Stella is a senior who runs a free program to teach other seniors to use public transport. “Public transit keeps your mind and body healthy, connected to loved ones and your community, helps mother earth, and is very kind to the pocket book, “ she says on a blog.
Executive coach and author Richar J. Leider investigated the reasons that people felt isolated after retirement and sought their opinion on what they would do differently if given a second chance. Almost uniformly, most respondents said they “wanted their lives to matter, to have made a difference.” Helping another and making a difference to the life of a fellow human being can be the master key to ending your own isolation. One simple way could be to volunteer; to offer your life’s experience and knowledge to others. RSVP, a program of Senior Corps, is one of the largest senior volunteer groups in the country, with close to 300,000 volunteers in a wide range of areas. Others like Foster Grandparents, The Senior Companion Program, and Seniors Helping Seniors offer very good options too.
A potted plant or a pet can add meaning to day-to-day existence in a way that few other things can. Pets provide companionship, encourage an active routine and give purpose. A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society noted, “senior citizens who own pets are less likely to be depressed, are better able to tolerate social isolation, and are more active than those who do not own pets.” You can find pet adoption resources here.
Hearing and eyesight tests can help us identify and fix embarrassing problems that may have developed slowly over a period of time and become debilitating. If you can’t read the sign in the subway or hear the waiter at a restaurant, you’re unlikely to want to leave home. And yet, the answer can be as simple as a new pair or glasses or an invisible in-ear hearing aid. In a New York Times article on getting over mental blocks, a woman from Wisconsin said, “I want to talk to everyone I know and say, ‘Get over the shyness about hearing aids—life can be better.’”
Take care of yourself. In the PNAS study mentioned earlier, author Nicholson says, “Individuals with a poor body image attributable to being overweight may decrease or cease interactions with their social networks to the point where they could be at risk for social isolation.” Take that step to look after yourself. Mother Nature has much to offer in terms of things that can help you lose weight in a healthy way, have radiant skin and hair, sleep better, and more. Looking great on the outside begins with great immunity inside and sleeping well. You can look good and feel great at any age!
So go ahead and make the change; plug back into society and make the next 5 decades the best ones of your life!
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