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Why staying socially engaged is so important

Why staying socially engaged is so important
Hi this is Brian Lawlor again, talking to you about keeping socially engaged. When you ask older people themselves, what do they value or consider important in terms of ageing well, they most often say that while good physical and mental health are important, it’s engagement with life that matters most to them as they get older. Now the flip side of being engaged socially, and with life is feeling lonely and being isolated. And these experiences can be common in older people and seriously affect their mental, and indeed in some cases, their physical health. Just to be clear, there’s a difference between feeling lonely and being isolated. Loneliness is an unpleasant feeling of being dissatisfied with the quality of your social relationships.
Isolation on the other hand, refers to the absence of a social network or contacts. You can be lonely and not isolated, and isolated and not lonely. But oftentimes, loneliness and social isolation can actually occur together. Some people have a small network of family and friends. Others have a much wider network that not only includes family and friends but also neighbours. The quality of the connection is probably more important than the quantity. However, having a small social network can become problematic later in life, if you lose a number of those contacts. We now know that loneliness and being isolated from friends and family can have about the same effect on how long you live as cigarette smoking and obesity.
And that a lack of social engagement can contribute about the same level of risk of developing dementia, as a low level of physical activity or depression. Feeling lonely is associated with poor sleep and low mood. We don’t know exactly how loneliness can increase a person’s risk of dying. But it seems that loneliness and isolation are stressful to the human system, and can cause a level of inflammation in the body that has a negative effect on your health. This is all very important because there are many things that we can do in our own communities to decrease loneliness and isolation.
And interventions by a community and volunteers to promote social connection can have a big impact on people’s health and well being. And there may be a further benefit. It appears that people who get involved in this type of volunteerism in their communities are actually happier, more connected, and may even live longer themselves. So to develop this idea volunteering being good for your health, we know that people who volunteer feel more fulfilled and they actually live longer. We don’t know if this is a selection bias. By this I mean that people who volunteer because they’re able to are actually healthier to start with. Or is it really the volunteering that gives them the benefit?
Certainly people who volunteer will tell you that they get a lot out of it. We’ve seen this benefit ourselves for older people, who visited older people who are isolated and at risk of being lonely. The volunteers say that the benefited, but also their own level of loneliness actually decreased. And for the people that were visited, they felt less lonely, and felt less sad, when we compared them to the group who actually didn’t get the visits. And this type of approach, whereby volunteers befriend or visit older people or are isolated or lonely might work on a large scale basis to address this common and health impairing experience of older people.
The actual numbers of older people who are significantly lonely is between one in ten, and one in twenty. Social engagement also seems to be important in promoting good mental health as you age. People who are not lonely or isolated are less likely to feel depressed. Interestingly, people who attend church regularly are at a lower risk of being depressed. We think that this is likely due to the social activity involved in going to church, which may protect you from developing depression. So what can you do to remain socially connected as you get older? Given that it’s important for your physical, mental, and your brain health. Don’t just begin to build connections later in life.
It’s best to develop and maintain them as you get older. Bereavement and physical health could cause a serious disruption to an older person’s social network. So you have to be aware of the risk. And if it happens, try and fight against it, and make every effort to stay in touch with family, friends, and neighbours. If you withdraw and become more isolated, you become more at risk of becoming depressed and of there being a greater negative impact on your physical health. We have found that women who were bereaved are more likely to become depressed if they are experiencing loneliness.
This suggests to us, if you could find a way to address loneliness, either before or after a bereavement, you might be able to prevent depression developing in some people who experience such a loss. Always try and take time for your social fix. Whether it’s a game of tennis, balls, bridge, or meeting with friends or family to socialise, these interactions are important and can support your physical and mental health through good times and bad. Stay socially connected. It’s good for your health. But it’s also good for the people that you connect with. Now for some questions. Have you ever experienced loneliness in your life? Did it get resolved? And have you any tips for your fellow students on the MOOC?

We now know that loneliness, and being isolated from friends and family, can have about the same effect on how long you live as cigarette smoking and obesity. Social engagement seems to be important in promoting good mental health as you age; for example, people who are not lonely or isolated are less likely to have depression.

A project by Trinity College (Lawlor et al, 2014) looked at how home visits by volunteers could be used to support older adults who may experience loneliness. The study found that loneliness decreased in participants after one and three months. These quotes from participants and volunteers describe how the project had an impact on their lives:

Participant: “It changed my life in every way …. was something to look forward to every week which I hadn’t had before. Another day, I’d be sitting in my own looking at the four walls. When the volunteer came, I’d be busy, I’d have to get ready for her.”
Volunteer: “At first, she wouldn’t say much but then she’d start to tell you little things, only between herself and myself. It was lovely.”
But, the study also highlighted the difficulties that older people face such as mobility, bereavement and societal changes.
Volunteer: “They have a huge big flat screen television and their radio but they are lonely. They don’t have people coming to visit them. It’s not that they don’t want visitors but they live in a rural area, and you know the way society has gotten now, people don’t call in for visits anymore. They looked forward to my visits though.”

This study shows how being socially engaged with others can decrease loneliness, and can have benefits for both the volunteer and the participant.

  • What do you believe to be the biggest danger related to loneliness and isolation? Post your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Next, listen to some of Professor Lawlor’s strategies for combating social isolation and loneliness.

Brian Lawlor is Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin.

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