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Aug 27, 2009 11:15 AM  CST  

Party On!: The Socialization Factor in Healthy Aging 

By: Kathy Laurenhue

A few decades ago, Barbra Streisand became famous singing, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” but the reality is, we all need people, and research studies increasingly prove it.

When various experts are asked, “How can I age well?” the standard responses nowadays are almost universally: exercise your body and brain, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, cultivate a positive attitude, tune in to your spiritual side—and socialize with friends. In fact, the importance of socialization is increasingly grabbing attention, and may be as critical to longevity as giving up smoking and other unhealthy habits.

Consider these findings:

• A landmark UCLA study found that the “fight or flight” response that has long been accepted as the normal reaction to stress is generally a male response. Women are more likely to “tend and befriend,” and this alternative may be a contributing factor to their longer life expectancy.

• Research has shown that people with regular social ties are significantly less likely to demonstrate cognitive decline when compared to those who are lonely or isolated.

• University of Michigan researchers who tested 3,610 people between the ages of 24 and 96 found that even 10 minutes of social interaction improved cognitive performance.

Avoiding isolation is especially important for caregivers whose stress levels often feed physical and mental ailments. As well-said by one former caregiver, Juanita Tucker: “Each of us needs time for self, for friends, for fun, for recreation. Fulfilling these needs will not take away from our loved ones. Indeed, it will nourish and enrich us, and enable us to give more.”

So if people need people for healthy aging, how can we nurture those relationships?

Here are a few ideas:

Make physical exercise a group exercise. Taking a daily walk is good for your body and brain, and taking a walk with a friend may compound your sense of well-being. It is much easier to get your daily exercise if you do something you enjoy with someone you enjoy. Walk, swim, play croquet or bowl—whatever floats your boat. If you can’t get out due to weather or disability, electronic games such as Wii cleverly offer the opportunity to play old favorite sports in the comfort of home—and with companions.

Put multiple minds together for brain aerobics.

Doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku is generally a solitary effort, but lots of brain-building activities can be done with others. Board games like Scrabble, Upwords, Trivial Pursuit and Smart Mouth, for example, are fun precisely because they involve combining the power of multiple minds. In residential care settings, trivia quizzes, word games, reminiscence discussions and other daily events are effective group activities because one person’s response may trigger another person’s insight, thereby enriching the overall effect.

Share a meal. Eating a healthy diet is important, and, yet, perhaps the greatest aid to digestion is the company of others. What’s that? You live alone? Invite a friend to lunch if you can. At the same time, technology allows people who are far away to share a meal by using inexpensive computer Webcams. I watch you eat while you watch me eat, and we both enjoy the conversation. If you aren’t yet proficient with technology, you can do a non-visual version with telephones.

Enroll in a special interest group. What’s your favorite thing to do? How can you share with others the enjoyment of doing it? Groups abound for virtually every interest, whether it’s playing bridge or ballroom dancing. Even if the   normally solitary act of reading a book is your way of relaxing, consider joining a book club to share thoughts and socialize. Also contemplate not just what you enjoy, but what you need. Many people find that a support group for those affected by Alzheimer’s disease, for example, provides the unique camaraderie of people who truly understand.

Join an online group. If it’s difficult to get out and about because you live in a rural area, have health problems of your own or are caring for a loved one, the virtual world can open endless new opportunities. Here, too, more and more special interests can be accommodated, from Alzheimer’s disease-related chat rooms to Web sites that enable you to play Scrabble and other games with long-distance partners to your heart’s content. If you’re not computer savvy, come of age by taking a class or connecting with someone like a grandchild or teenage neighbor who knows how to  navigate the Web.

Be a friend. Consider the quote by the late radio host Bernard Meltzer: “A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.” What we love about our friends is that they accept us as we are. They listen without judging. Anyone can learn to do that. Reach out. Sometimes all it takes is a simple   invitation: “Come sit by me; I’d like to get to know you better.”

Volunteer. It’s possible to overcome your own troubles by helping others with their problems. One terrific way to make new friends is to volunteer for a cause you believe in.

In pondering socialization opportunities, remember to focus on what replenishes your spirit, not drains it. If a social activity adds to your stress, bow out. This advice also applies to people. Not all relationships are created equal. Wooden people who try to whittle others down can literally whittle down your health as well.

In reality, we can’t avoid all negative people, and we can’t always have the social interactions we might choose, but we can reframe our thinking. A nursing home resident can say, “Poor me; I’m surrounded by 50 sick, crabby people,” or he or she can say, “I am surrounded by 50 people I know nothing about. I bet each one has an interesting story to tell and would like me to be a willing listener.”

Socialization gives us a sense of belonging, of being part of a community—even if it’s a community of only three or four people. With community comes confidence: By this group I am valued; what I do with this group gives my life meaning. With confidence comes self-esteem and an increased sense of well-being.

But the greatest benefit of socialization is that people who share experiences are much more likely to laugh together, and laughter may be the best boon to longevity we have. So party on!

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For additional information on this Newsletter article, please contact:

Caitlin Nasca
(850) 478-7790

Source: Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). For more information about the AFA, visit them online at: or call them at 1-866-232-8484. Alzheimer’s Family Services is a proud member of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

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