Having a strong social support network and being socially active have been shown to be physically, emotionally, and cognitively beneficial for people of all ages. However, being proactive about maintaining and replenishing social connections is particularly important in later years, when the natural progression of life can often decrease the size of one's social network and inhibit the ability to participate in social activities.
The positive health benefits of social support and social interaction include reduced risk of a range of maladies including cardiovascular issues, Alzheimer's disease, depression, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Social interaction has also been shown to boost the immune system and protect against illness. The research even shows that socially engaged individuals are likely to live longer than people with fewer social ties.
On the flip side, social isolation and loneliness have been shown to have significant negative effects on the health and well-being of older adults. Although healthcare workers, social services providers, and families have observed this rather intuitive relationship for decades, researchers only recently quantified the harmful effects of loneliness. In 2012, researchers at U.C. San Francisco found that older adults (over 60) who reported feeling "sometimes lonely" were 45 percent more likely to die during the six-year follow-up period than individuals who reported being satisfied with their sense of social connectedness. The "sometimes lonely" group was also 59 percent more likely to suffer significant decline in their ability to perform activities of daily living, such as eating, bathing, and dressing, during the same follow-up period.
Taken together, improving social connectedness and mitigating loneliness are critical for maintaining health and well-being in later life. Today's advances in communication technology provide great new avenues for staying socially engaged and deepening relationships throughout life.
The great thing about landline telephones is that older adults are already familiar with them. However, age-related changes can make it difficult to hear what others are saying and to fully connect using a basic phone.
This is where new technologies are helping -- you can now get phones that are specially designed for people with hearing, visual, or even cognitive limitations. Available features include amplified sound, extra-loud speakerphone capabilities, large-font buttons, highcontrast screens, and programmable one-touch photo-dial buttons.
Cell phones also provide a great way to stay connected -- especially for older adults who are still driving and getting out about town. There are now multiple phones on the market that are designed specifically for technology novices and people with hearing or vision limitations. The Apple Genius Bar and Best Buy's Geek Squad provide great ways for older consumers to learn how to make the most of today's phones. For example, learning to send and receive text messages is a great way for seniors to open up a new line of communication with their onthe- go children and grandchildren.
Free Conference Calls
Conference calls have long been used in business, but now free conference call services are widely available for the public. Once the older adults in your family have phones that work well for them, you can go one step further with conference calling. Only one person in your family needs to set up an account online (simply search for "Free Conference Call"), and since the services are free, no credit card information should be required. Once you've created an account, you'll get your own dedicated dial-in number and access code to share with family and friends. Conference calls provide a fun and efficient way to connect with groups of friends or family members and may even bring back fond memories of "party lines" for the older generation.
Going Online -- Email and Social Networking
Connecting to the Internet opens up a whole new world of social opportunities and can easily be done now through basic smartphones and tablets. Email provides an easy way for older adults to stay in touch with friends near and far and is even credited with reviving the lost art of letter writing. Social networking sites such as Facebook also help connect families and friends around the world and make it easy to follow along with each other's life events, no matter the distance. Many grandparents regularly log onto Facebook to see photos and videos of their growing grandchildren. Even if the older adult in your family doesn't personally want to post status updates, having a Facebook account can provide a window into the lives of those who are most important to them. You can get them started by creating an account and getting them connected with a few key family members and friends. Over time you can help them learn additional features and search for additional friends.
Video Calling Services
Video calling services such as SkypeTM and AppleR FacetimeR allow people to see each other's faces while having a real-time conversation. Video calls are the next best thing to actually being in the same room. In fact, many seniors find it easier to follow the conversation because they can read lips and get visual context clues.
Not only are video calls a fun and rich communication medium but they provide additional benefits, such as enabling grandparents to see grandchildren even if the kids are too shy to talk, or allowing you to visually see how your loved one is doing (are they clean-shaven? Have they changed clothes?).
Whether face to face or with the help of technology, encourage the people in your life to socialize and nurture relationships. It's good for the body and the mind! Caring.com is the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other loved ones.