In the past, declining health was the primary reason for older adults to move from their “family home” into a home offering support with daily chores and medical care.
Today, that trend is beginning to change, with an increasing number of healthy, active adults moving to retirement communities for a very different reason: social support. And they are discovering it has profound and far-reaching benefits.
The many benefits of social interaction
As it turns out, having regular and meaningful interactions with others is much more than just a pleasant pastime. It is critical to our well-being. In fact, a quickly growing body of research is showing that social engagement—feeling connected to others—can lead to better health and longevity, while social isolation and loneliness have alarmingly negative effects on physical and cognitive health.
Here are a few of the specific benefits of regularly connecting with others:
- Improves memory and cognitive function. Evidence has shown that an active social life can actually improve brainpower, increasing our ability to concentrate and slowing the rate of memory loss and other cognitive loss.
- Reduces the risk of premature mortality. People who constantly feel lonely have a 14% higher risk of premature death than those who don’t, according to a recent study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In fact, having high-quality relationships with a few people is one of the keys to greater happiness.
- Supports better overall health. The National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project showed that people who feel the most socially connected are five times more likely to report very good or excellent health than those who felt the most socially disconnected and lonely.
- Enhances the effectiveness of other beneficial activities. Other studies have shown that a strong social network of caring friends, family, and organizations can be as much of a factor in successful aging as diet and exercise. Furthermore, adding a social component to diet and exercise can significantly enhance their effectiveness. For instance, those who have a walking partner or join a walking group tend to take longer walks and walk more often.
As more studies are conducted, we are likely to discover many more benefits of social interaction.
Even couples can feel lonely
Even if you’re not living alone, you can experience loneliness. The following are common causes for feeling lonely:
- You don’t know your neighbors anymore
- Your longtime friends have moved away or passed on
- Your family doesn’t visit as much as you’d like
- You aren’t as mobile, reducing the opportunity for outside activities
- Your home itself requires too much maintenance and ties you down
Studies reveal significant benefits to living in retirement communities
Another important study found that people who choose to live in retirement communities, where social connection is commonplace, are generally more satisfied with their daily lives and are more likely to be happier than their contemporaries who remain in their own homes.
It is not surprising, then, that living in a retirement community also has a positive impact on health. The same study found that residents were more likely to report that their current health status was better than it had been in the previous two years, as compared with people who remained in their own homes.
By providing the resources, structure, and support for social engagement, retirement communities offer definite health benefits to residents.
How retirement communities promote greater health and happiness
Here are a few examples of how communities help facilitate easy, meaningful, and regular social connections in one-on-one and small-group settings:
- Physical activities in a health club, walking groups, and exercise classes
- Intergenerational activities with grandchildren and children from local schools
- Growing Together programs for people who share a love of gardening and pets
- Volunteerism. One study showed that seniors who regularly help others reduce their risk of dying by over 50% compared to those who never offer support to others
- Lifelong Learning classes for the mind, body, and spirit
- Special events, such as art shows, speakers, trips, and more
- Scheduled transportation connects people with the greater community for shopping excursions, trips to the symphony, or a special dinner out
- Dining rooms offer formal and casual dining options for residents and guests
- Common areas provide inviting chairs and sofas for conversations
- Recreation rooms can include cards, Wii™, billiards, board games
- Spacious homes with room to host a book club or bridge party
- Community rooms to worship together and share friendship
The benefits of social interaction are heightened if they incorporate meaning and purpose for participants. When looking at communities, pay attention to those that have residents’ well-being in mind and respond to their desires.
The importance of balancing social interaction and time alone
It is an important distinction to note that it is the feeling of loneliness, rather than simply being alone, that is associated with an increased risk of clinical dementia. People can, in fact, spend time alone and not feel lonely. We know that for most people, a certain amount of time by oneself can be a healthy activity. Being alone only becomes unhealthy when we feel we are spending too much time alone when we’d rather be with other people.
Each person has a preferred balance of being with others and spending time alone. And this is why it’s important to find a retirement community that celebrates social activities and respects privacy and individual pursuits.