Zone Classifieds The Zoomer Edit How Your Social Network Can Boost Your Health – And Ways to Make It Stronger
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How Your Social Network Can Boost Your Health – And Ways to Make It Stronger
BY Judy Gerstel | February 8th, 2023
Forget the red and pink confections and de rigueur roses. They’re a consumer-driven sideshow to the real message that comes around every Feb. 14: this is a time to celebrate relationships.
Sure, some couples may be moved to declare or affirm their love with chocolate, a fancy dinner or even diamonds. But it’s also an appropriate time to simply appreciate the pleasure of socializing with people you like (whether they’re like you or not).
And for older people, socializing isn’t just a pleasant way to spend time. It’s also crucial for healthy aging.
A study published in the journal Plos One found that socializing may improve older adults’ cognitive function in daily life. Social isolation was associated with about a 50 per cent increased risk of dementia. Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were also associated with a 29 per cent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 per cent increased risk of stroke. In fact, researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The link between loneliness and health has led to physicians writing “social prescriptions”, says Dr. Rachel Savage, a research scientist at the Women’s Age Lab and Research Institute at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Toronto Institute of Health Policy.
Loneliness is different than being alone, she says, which some people enjoy.
“My dad, who is 80, is very content with time on his own,” says Savage, “He loves going for long walks in the woods by himself. He feels it recharges him. He doesn’t see it as negative.”
But there’s a world of difference between being alone for a time to refuel and loneliness, notes Savage.
Loneliness, she says, is “an unwanted, painful feeling, a subjective experience of having fewer relationships, connections or contacts with family, friends and community than we desire.”
As well, “older women consistently report higher rates of loneliness than men, notes Savage. “Women tend to live longer on average and traditionally in the past have married older partners so there is an increased likelihood of prolonged widowhood and living alone.
“Also, caregiving can be an isolating experience and make it difficult to maintain social connections.”
Ways to Alleviate Loneliness
Savage suggests that finding a group with shared interests, volunteering and even having a pet can alleviate loneliness.
One study found that older adults who were pet owners were 36 per cent less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness. Also, for older adults living alone not owning a pet was associated with the greatest odds of reporting feelings of loneliness.
It’s not surprising that Petsmart promotes Valentine’s Day presents for pets.
But to paraphrase the Streisand song, “people who need people” — and find ways to connect with them — are the least lonely people in the world.
Toronto resident Adele Robertson is one of them.
Robertson, who is in her 80s, knows about the importance of socializing for older adults. After she retired from a career in advertising followed by a stint as head of corporate fundraising, Robertson served as a board member at Sheridan College’s Elder Research Centre.
“There’s no question that social isolation is very damaging to your health,” she says. Robertson is active in volunteer work and takes part in the Academy for Lifelong Learning. “The social part of it — getting together — has been very important,” she says, about the academy.
“I was in a workshop on Virginia Woolf with 10 other women and, in addition to peer-to-peer learning about Bloomsbury, we got to be very good friends — to the point where two years ago when Woolf [would have] turned 140 we had a Zoom birthday party for her. Last summer we got together for lunch on a patio.”
The women in the group were between the ages of 62 and 86. “It’s critical as people age to have that kind of social intercourse,” says Robertson.
Jim Pike, 79, a retired IBM engineer, is a long-time member of the Academy for Lifelong Learning. He appreciates the social aspect “even during the Zoom sessions” that took place during the pandemic.
He especially enjoys the strolls organized by the academy.
“We have walks in different parts of Toronto and finish with lunch,” he explains. “Twenty people show up at a subway stop. The walks are a big part of socializing.”
During the pandemic, he hosted a virtual lunch via Zoom every Tuesday for six or seven guys. “Prior to the pandemic, we’d meet for lunch every six weeks and shoot the breeze about baseball and politics.” he says, adding, “I’m certainly not isolated and I plan not to be isolated.”
Martin Jones, 74, who is currently facilitating a workshop for the academy called “Ancient Greece, from Homer to Alexander”, says that “socializing is a vital part of the life of the academy.”
Some workshops hold lunch and pub get-togethers. Members can also participate in special interest groups to discuss topics such as travel, health and wellness, disruptive technologies, gardening and books.
“I’ve found these various events, in addition to the workshops, to be a great way of meeting people and forming lasting friendships,” Jones says.
Opportunities for Volunteering
While both Pike and Robertson highly recommend the Academy for Lifelong Learning as a way for seniors to socialize as they participate in peer-to-peer learning, Robertson has also found volunteering to be a gratifying way of socializing. She’s served on many boards and committees including UNICEF, the Jazz Performance and Education Centre and Youth Without Shelter. She also suggests finding volunteer opportunities at Volunteer Toronto (or similar sites for other geographical areas including, for example, Volunteer Barrie) at Charity Village, or at Seniortoronto.ca.
Among current volunteer opportunities for socializing are:
Re-Store Volunteer, Habitat for Humanity GTA
Wildlife Nursery Assistant (Rouge Park)
Lunch Servers and Bakery Prep Volunteers
Also, among many groups for active older adults is Seniors For Nature Outdoor Club. The membership fee is $35. Activities, “offered at a variety of levels to suit members from across the GTA and beyond who are mostly over 55 years of age, include canoeing/kayaking, cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, contemplative outings, and socializing.”
As well, seniors who are mobile might consider attending events, activities and recreational sports at seniors’ centres — including the Thistletown Seniors’ Centre in Etobicoke, where pickleball and table tennis are offered daily Monday through Friday — in the Toronto area listed on the Toronto Central Health Line. Many Toronto area general community centres offer free and reduced programming for people age 60 and over.
Even older people who are isolated at home can find a way to socialize through organizations that provide friendly visiting and phone calls from volunteers, including Circle of Care and others listed on the Toronto Central Health Line.
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