Karen is a 72 year-old grandmother living in the solitude of her own home. Sometimes she’ll strike up a conversation while shopping for groceries, but it never lasts very long. Her grandkids come over to visit her once in a while, a welcome interruption in her daily routine. Every week or so, her daughter will ring to catch up on their comings and goings, but sometimes she forgets. Karen doesn’t want to insist, she knows not everyone is retired with endless hours to spend on an old-timer like herself.
As she gets older, the visits from her grandkids become further and further apart. They have school, sports, and in their spare time they want to hang out with people their own age. Her daughter now has such a busy schedule that she forgets to call for weeks at a time. Karen gradually feels lonelier, less important to her loved ones and less relevant in the fast-moving society around her. Her quality of life is on a slow decline, and what she doesn’t know, is that at the same time, her years of life are also reducing.
Loneliness plays a pivotal role in how long people like Karen live, and also in how well they live. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California found that loneliness – particularly in the elderly – is a major factor in determining their lifespan. Out of 1600 adults – with an average age of 71 – the loneliest elders passed away sooner. Nearly 23% of elderly adults living a more isolated lifestyle died within 6 years of the study, whereas only 14% of participants with adequate relationships died within the same time period.
Companionship is important at every stage of our lives. When we’re young we go to great lengths to gain the attention of like-minded individuals, as we grow older we replace most of those friends with new (and sometimes better) ones – more aligned with our interests and goals. The older we get, the more time we have to spend with these remaining friends and our loved ones.
When we reach a certain age, we place a greater value on these close relationships, to the point where we become more lenient about who we share our time with. In part, this is due to a lifetime of honing your relationship skills. Rosemary Blieszner, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech, explains:
You bring a lot more experience to your friendships when you’re older. You know what’s worth fighting about and not worth fighting about.
Many elderly tend to thrive in assisted living environments for this reason. They’re surrounded by people who they can mingle and connect with. It’s also why establishing friendships with the elderly is so important, especially since these golden-agers suffer higher mortality rates and increased risk of depression, cognitive decline, and illnesses when isolation is at the forefront.
With proven evidence that a gratifying relationship – family or friend – helps save lives and promote health, it’s important that we take action to keep our elderly connections within close range. It’s also a good reason why social workers or professionals surrounded by the third-age find ways to encourage these quality relationships.
Your mind has most likely wandered over to your parents, your grandparents, a neighbor, or possibly just that one elder you tend to say hello to once in a while. Keep that person in mind now and begin to think of ways you can improve their day tomorrow. It could simply be a longer conversation than normal or an invitation to a nearby coffee shop.
If spending quality time with the elderly isn’t your strength, then here are some ideas for your next rendezvous:
Go out for a meal
Bonding is always much more pleasant when food is involved. Plus the change of scenery will be refreshing for anyone who spends most of their time at home or in a retirement facility.
It could be their favorite board game or even a low impact game on the Wii. This keeps them active in more ways than one, and it’s a great way to have a little fun.
Plan a picnic
Take them out to a picnic in a nice area surrounded by nature. The fresh air and escape from buzzing phones and glaring screens will be good for you too.
Go for a walk
Walks have been known to do wonders for improving your mood and even alleviating depression. A short 15-minute walk would be beneficial for their health and mood.
Set them up with potential friends
We’ve seen how valuable friendships is one of the keys to a more satisfying life. So round up those people you think they’d get along with and kickstart the conversation.
Just give them a call
Not everyone lives in close proximity to their elderly friends or relatives, so sometimes quality time can only be spent via video calling or an old-fashioned phone call. Having a good conversation is beneficial for your health, so this time to exchange gossip or update each other would be a healthy way for both parties to spend an hour or two.
So now that you’re aware of your direct effect on the life of someone much older than you, take 5 minutes of your day to pick up the phone and call that person you’ve been thinking of. Give them that much-needed conversation and invite them over to spend some quality time in person – if you can. They get the companionship which is crucial to improving their quality of life (and extending it too), and you get to catch up on their stories and maybe even get a secret family recipe or two.