Jennifer Petrea, RN
Jennifer Petrea, RN

How important is social support as one ages? You may find that this is not an easy question to answer. Most people do not choose isolation and loneliness versus spending time with companions.

Sometimes, aging adults may find themselves in a situation in which they do not have family support, and they make the transition into assisted living, or skilled nursing. Those who are in independent living facilities may be more vulnerable to disruptions in their social networks and to loneliness in their everyday lives. Whatever the situation, research tells us that lack of social support may negatively influence a person’s overall quality of life.

Psychological benefits of being social
The World Health Organization defines quality of life as “individuals’ perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.” Certain variables in our lives can affect someone’s perceived quality of life. People who report lower overall quality of life tend to have underlying issues with depression, anxiety, and sadness, as well as chronic health conditions. The transition to an assisted living or skilled nursing facility can be a major adjustment, yet there are many amenities available in such communities that can improve the overall quality of life for residents.

Most independent living facilities provide activities that promote socialization among residents. Socialization is the process by which we learn to become members of a society, by performing social roles and internalizing the norms and values of the society. Activities can contribute to the integrity of an individual’s health and wellness, such as:

  • Open Dining
  • Book Clubs
  • Exercise classes
  • Community outings
  • Social gatherings

While some isolation is beneficial for self-reflection and stress reduction, lack of social interaction can hasten disparities, like depression and loneliness.

Socialization embraces the six dimensions of health
Did you know that our level of “wellness” is not mutually exclusive to our health conditions? One person may be healthy, but not necessarily well. On the other hand, you might find a person with poor health that embodies a high degree of wellness. Nevertheless, what exactly does this word mean?

Halbert Dunn, M.D., author of High Level Wellness, calls wellness “an integrated method of functioning which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable of functioning within the environment.” Other physicians like John W. Rowe, M.D., and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., in their 1998 book Successful Aging, refer to successful aging as “low risk of disease and disease-related disability; high mental and physical function and an active engagement with life.”

In medicine, we recognize the six dimensions of health that includes: the emotional, intellectual, physical, social, spiritual and vocational; each individual dimension interact with one another. Simply put, keeping things in a holistic perspective can help us better understand why it is imperative to remain active in senior housing environments. When we nurture each dimension of health, a person is more balanced, and this promotes successful aging.

Positive effects of socialization on each dimension of health

  • Emotional: Having a variety of positive social support can contribute to psychological and physical wellness of elderly individuals. Interaction with others can be important in reducing stress and defeating psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.
  • Intellectual: Participating in social activities like games and book clubs help to support challenging areas in the brain that can stimulate cognition and to prevent decline involved with age-related dementia.
  • Physical: Participating in physical health-related activities like walking, Silver Sneakers and swimming can help promote longevity and functional ability. Optimizing functional ability is critically important. Physical activity causes a release of endorphins, which are “feel good” chemicals our bodies need for natural pain relief and recovery.
  • Social: When people interact with others during activities, new connections and relationships are formed. Connection is the center foundation of the human experience. Without connections, our lives would be void of depth and meaning.
  • Spiritual: Socialization in community activities helps to ensure that one’s belief system remains fluid throughout the transitions of living. Many communities have bible studies, prayer groups and other services that support the need to connect and fellowship. These activities help strengthen faith, hope and our understanding of existence. Serving others in times of need is important to people of all ages, as this helps connect our empathetic hearts to our purpose in life.
  • Vocational: Sometimes, a person may experience grief when they retire from their lifelong professions. Even when we leave our profession, the passion is still there. A resident who was a hairdresser or barber may be able to perform hair care for those residents who cannot perform self-care. A retired pastor may be able to host weekly worship services. A retired housekeeper may be able to help keep a less independent resident’s quarters tidy. Whatever your passions are, aging does not mean they can no longer exist within.

Negative stigmas are sometimes attached to senior living facilities. It is well-known that many seniors wish to remain independent and live in their homes for as long as possible; however, sometimes caregivers and family members are unable to provide what ensures an optimal quality of life for their loved ones. For those reasons, seniors find themselves transitioning into alternative living.

Transitions such as these can offer opportunities for renewed growth and allow for new relationships. Life does not end with the aging process; instead, it is a time to grow into new social roles that help define our legacy.

Jennifer Petrea, R.N. is an associate of Presbyterian Home of Maryland.