Are you Socially Connected?

Personal relationships are essential to health.

Maintaining a social life gets harder with age. Little by little the ones we were close to pass away or move away, and we leave our job and lose it’s broad network of friends and acquaintances. As our social pool evaporates, we have a hard time filling it back up, because it’s either too hard or we’re not motivated enough to meet new people.

Even the relationships we’ve managed to hold onto can feel burdensome because we can get more judgmental with age. Research psychologist William von Hippelhat argues that the filtering part of our brain — the part that inhibits inappropriate or negative thoughts and comments — gradually weakens. Without that filter, the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of our friends that we tolerated over the years are harder to do so. That may be why, as we get older, we tend to disengage with friends and pull back emotionally.

Now, some might argue that getting rid of annoying people is something that should have done years ago. Well, that might be true, but it also might be wrong-headed. We might in fact have really decided to close our minds down, forego patience, and let our weakened brains take over.

Whatever the reason, we should also keep in mind that each of us has idiosyncrasies, traits that others have tolerated over the years. As we get older, everyone is a pain in the neck to everyone else, maybe not all the time, but for much of it. That’s no reason to drop them from our lives — think of them as a psychological challenge. Besides, it becomes harder to replace these old friends late in life, and even if we find a few, there’s no guarantee they’ll be any less annoying than the ones we gave up. Better to have the poison you know than the one you don’t.

But here’s the real issue — staying socially connected is essential to one’s well-being. A good social life…

  • Provides a sense a belonging that feeds our personal identities and validates our thoughts and actions.
  • Adds personal meaning and value to our lives, strengthening our self-worth and confidence.
  • Offers social events that give us routines and schedules, adding structure and purpose to daily living.
  • Is a source of emotional support, making it easier to handle problems and helping to keep stress levels in check.

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On the negative side, social isolation is considered to be as high a health risk factor as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. On the psychological side, our identity can feel threatened, our self-esteem can be weakened, and there’s a higher risk of depression. We can become cynical and develop feelings of helplessness because we don’t feel in control of our lives.

There’s also physical consequences. To some extent these problems may result from a lack of activity that accompanies isolation, but also from the stress of feeling alone and not having anyone watching out for us.

Those who are socially disconnected…

  • Have a higher risk of high blood pressure, coronary disease and stroke.
  • Have a faster breakdown of cognitive skills and greater likelihood of suffering dementia because their minds are less active.
  • Have greater decline of functional skills, such as walking or climbing stairs.
  • Suffer from chronic stress, the health consequences of which you can read about in “Death By Stress”
  • Have a weakened immune system because white blood cells remain immature and ineffective 

So, what makes for a good social life? For sure, it’s the number of people we interact with and the amount of time we dedicate to them. But it’s also about diversity — the broader and more diverse one’s social circle, the better. That’s how you get exposed to new ideas and different ways of thinking. You also have more activities thrown your way and more opportunities to get into various forms of mischief.

Here’s one mistake to avoid — focusing too much attention on family members. Certainly, hanging out with the grand kiddies has it’s value, but it’s not a good idea to rely on family exclusively. Your children’s priorities are about building their lives, raising families, and working, things that aren’t relevant to your stage of life. Not that you should ignore your kids, but you should avoid becoming overly dependent on them. What’s important is balance – a social life that includes equal parts family and friends.

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We all know that making new friends is no easy task. But that can’t be an excuse. One has to commit time each day to seek out the ways and places to meet people. Here’s some ideas that might help you get there…

  • Set up regular play dates with your current friends and acquaintances — even the annoying ones. Nurture these relationships and recognize the benefits they provide — there has to be something good that sustained these relationships all these years.
  • Try using the internet to track down old friends with whom you’ve had a meaningful relationship in the past.
  • Consider joining clubs and senior organizations or consider starting your own club. This may sound silly, but if you know one person who knows another who knows another, soon they’ll be enough folks to meet anyone’s social needs. You might try setting up a group on a theme basis, e.g.,  dining, wine tasting, golf, etc. — that’s a way to spend time with people who share your interests.
  • Become a volunteer or a mentor. To learn more about how to go about getting involved, check out our articles on Volunteer Resources and  Mentoring 
  • Take a class or two at your local college, library, or community center.
  • Consider taking a job outside the home, specifically for the social benefits.

So, is your social life good enough? Frankly, if you’re not sure you have enough friends or devote enough hours to socializing, then you probably don’t and you need to fix that. Do it for your health, if not just for the sheer enjoyment.

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