The Importance of Social Engagement and How to Promote it Among Older Adults
Throughout our lives, we spend a significant amount of time with others—until we get older. An interesting visual representation from the World Economic Forum shows that the older we get, the more time alone we spend. While alone time is great for reflection, introspection, and maybe even the occasional book binge, in larger, more prolonged amounts, it can be detrimental to physical and mental health—even more so for older adults.
Can social engagement improve physical and mental health in older adults?
Staying socially engaged is one of the single most important things we can do for our health as we get older. In one study, the most important determinant of living a long life was flourishing close relationships and embracing community. In many other studies, social engagement was linked to better health outcomes, combating loneliness, preventing cognitive decline and dementia, and improving quality of life.
In another study published in 2019, researchers found that seniors who interacted with people beyond their usual social circle of family and close friends were more likely to have higher levels of physical activity, a more positive outlook, and less risk of depression. Conversely, a study from UC San Francisco found loneliness to be a risk factor for functional decline and early death.
The pandemic normalized feelings of isolation and loneliness, making initiating social engagement even more challenging and discouraging for older adults. With those feelings of isolation comes self-doubt and a fear of rejection that precludes them from joining a local charity or attempting to connect with loved ones on social media. Given the innumerable benefits to physical and mental health, staying interconnected and feeling a sense of community are critical to not just being here for a good time—but a long time. Here are some practical tips for older adults to promote social engagement.
3 Ways to promote social engagement in older adults
Embrace technology to stay connected.
Social media can feel overwhelming, especially if you are not tech-savvy or do not own a smartphone, but it can be a life-changing and low-cost way to stay connected with friends and loved ones, especially if they do not live nearby. Gone are the days of alarming long-distance phone bills or expensive calling cards. Now, you can see real-time updates from loved ones, photos of their children and pets, and even feel like you’re vicariously enjoying some of their vacations or other memorable life experiences they may share with their social networks! You can also use social media to connect with local, like-minded charities or groups that may offer in-person meet-ups to give your social meter a boost. To improve your online experience and stay safe, remember the following social media best practices:
- Update your privacy settings to ensure only those you are connected to can have visibility to anything you share.
- Avoid scams by not responding to messages from people you don’t know or clicking risky links.
- Be selective with whom you choose to befriend on social media.
- Never provide any personal information, such as your address or credit card information, to anyone on social media.
- Ask your children or grandchildren for help setting up a social media profile. They may also be able to help teach you how to navigate the sites.
Volunteer at a local or national charity.
According to one study, volunteering for less than two hours a week can reduce your risk of mortality, reduce physical functioning limitations, increase physical activity, and drive better emotional outcomes, such as optimism and a renewed sense of purpose in life. Volunteering is also a way to give back to your community, using the lifelong wisdom and experience you’ve gained throughout your life.
Some of the most renowned charities include Habitat for Humanity, Feeding America, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. You could also consider volunteering at a local animal shelter or even local, state, or national parks. You can research more volunteer opportunities by visiting sites like volunteermatch.org or idealist.org.
Consider the reason you feel inclined to volunteer—wanting to work with veterans, children, people suffering from homelessness, or be immersed in nature—to help narrow down your search for the charity that is most aligned with your skills and passions. In any case, regardless of the charity you choose, you’ll be delighted to meet new people and put new and old skills to use!
Adopt a pet.
If you cannot leave your home for social engagement, bring the social engagement to you and consider adopting a pet! Spending time with pets can combat feelings of loneliness, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your overall health. Do keep in mind that owning a pet does come with a level of responsibility, but you’ll have a built-in buddy to hang out with even when the weather is too cold to go out or your family lives too far away to visit often. Plus, research shows that people who talk to their pets are more intelligent!