The paradigm of patient care is evolving, especially in the realm of elderly care. Traditionally, the focus has predominantly been on the physical health of the elderly, ensuring that their medical needs are met with precision and care. 

However, an emerging understanding highlights the necessity for a more holistic approach to wellness – one that transcends mere physical examinations and treatments. This broader perspective recognizes that for elderly patients, true well-being encompasses not just the body, but also the mind, underlining the importance of comprehensive wellness.

At the heart of this expanded wellness framework lies the concept of social wellness and reciprocity. For the elderly, consistent socialization isn’t just a nicety – it’s a necessity. 

Studies have demonstrated the impact that social engagement can have on elderly patients and its potential to contribute to their overall well-being. This often-overlooked facet of health may play a significant role in enhancing the overall quality of life for patients within skilled nursing facilities.

The importance of social wellness

Social wellness, within the context of elderly care, encapsulates the health and quality of one’s social connections and interactions. It goes beyond mere social activity – it’s about creating meaningful relationships that provide support and a sense of belonging. For the elderly, especially those in nursing facilities, social wellness becomes a cornerstone of comprehensive health that has the potential to positively impact their emotional, psychological and even physical wellbeing.

Research conducted by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) underscores the profound impact consistent socialization can have on the health outcomes of elderly individuals. Studies highlighted by the NIA reveal that seniors with active social lives tend to have a lower risk of developing certain diseases and also see positive impacts on physical health indicators such as lower blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular problems. The evidence suggests that social connections can act as a buffer against stress and help foster a more active lifestyle, contributing to better health outcomes.

This body of research emphasizes that social wellness is not merely a luxury but an important factor for the elderly that can affect various aspects of health and quality of life. For patients in nursing facilities – where the risk of isolation and loneliness is heightened – fostering social wellness is a critical aspect of care.

Social reciprocity: A crucial component to social wellness

How is social wellness achieved? The answer may lie in a concept known as social reciprocity. Social reciprocity is a fundamental concept within the tapestry of human relationships, acting as a barometer for the health and depth of social interactions. At its core, social reciprocity refers to the mutual exchange of support within any relationship. It is the give-and-take dynamic that ensures a balance in social interactions, affirming that both parties feel seen, heard and valued. In the context of social wellness, social reciprocity gains paramount importance as a metric for evaluating the quality of social connections and thus their impact on overall well-being.

In fact, the relevance of social reciprocity is deeply intertwined with an individual’s social wellness. Recent research suggests that social reciprocity directly contributes to social wellness by facilitating an increase in positive health behaviors such as higher levels of physical activity, exercise, and preventative actions alongside lower instances of stress, depression, anxiety and social isolation. 

Additionally, it was found that those with strong social support via reciprocity have more relationships overall and are more satisfied with those relationships. This means that social reciprocity is not only important, but it also helps us understand how being socially connected – rather than isolated – affects our mental and physical health.

Evaluating social reciprocity within the interactions of elderly patients allows caregivers to discern the quality of these relationships and their consequent impact on patient well-being. This insight can guide caregivers in creating targeted interventions aimed at fostering meaningful, reciprocal interactions among patients, staff, and family members. By developing environments that encourage equal and active participation in social exchanges, caregivers at skilled nursing facilities can enhance the social wellness of their residents, thereby improving their overall quality of life.

Actionable strategies for caregivers

To cultivate an environment where social reciprocity can flourish and potentially improve social wellness, caregivers can adopt a variety of actionable strategies. These approaches aim to enhance the social well-being of patients by fostering both human and non-human interactions and maintaining vital connections with the world beyond the facility’s walls.

  • Encourage and facilitate group activities and social events: Caregivers can organize events that cater to the diverse interests of residents, from art classes and music sessions to book clubs and gardening groups. These activities not only provide a platform for social interaction but also encourage residents to share their skills and interests, fostering a give-and-take dynamic.
  • Introduce pet therapy programs: Pet therapy programs offer a unique avenue for enhancing social reciprocity through non-human companionship as outside of family and friends, pets represent a significant source of socialization. Furthermore, animals, especially dogs and cats, have been shown to evoke positive responses among the elderly, encouraging interaction and reducing feelings of isolation.
  • Utilize technology to maintain connections with family and friends: Technology like social media can be used to keep people connected. Caregivers can leverage various technological tools to help residents maintain connections with family and friends outside the facility. This could involve setting up video calls, teaching residents to use social media, or introducing them to smartphone apps designed for older adults.

By implementing these strategies, caregivers can potentially enhance social reciprocity and thus the overall social wellness of patients in skilled nursing facilities. However, implementing strategies to enhance social reciprocity and wellness in skilled nursing facilities is not without its challenges. 

Logistic constraints, varying levels of patient mobility, and diverse cognitive functions can all pose barriers to effective engagement, but with thoughtful planning and adaptations, these obstacles can be navigated to ensure that all patients have the opportunity to benefit from social interactions.

The impact of enhanced social wellness

Throughout this exploration into the significance of social wellness one concept emerges as a linchpin for enhancing the well-being of elderly patients: social reciprocity. This mutual exchange within relationships goes beyond simple interaction, serving as a crucial element in nurturing the emotional, psychological, and even physical health of residents.

The implementation of strategies to bolster social wellness within skilled nursing facilities, particularly through fostering reciprocal relationships, is poised to yield significant benefits for elderly patients. Central among these anticipated outcomes is a marked increase in physical activity and simultaneous reduction in instances of anxiety and depression – conditions that disproportionately affect the elderly, especially those in long-term care settings.

The pursuit of enhanced social wellness through reciprocal relationships has the potential to positively impact outcomes for elderly patients in skilled nursing facilities. By prioritizing social health as a component of overall wellness, facilities have the opportunity to create a fulfilling, joyful, and connected stage of life among elderly residents. 

The evidence is clear: fostering social wellness but ensuring that every resident has the opportunity to give and receive support via social reciprocity has the potential improve the quality of life for the elderly.

Christine Lee is Head of Health Partnerships for AnalyticsIQ. Christine has over a decade of experience in the data and analytics space and has worked with industry leaders across verticals like healthcare, pharma, non-profits, and more. 

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.

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