Most of us have heard the expression, “It’s all about who you know,” usually applied to finding a good job: it’s no surprise that family, friends, and social networks can be a big factor in landing a lucrative gig. As we grow older, our social connections remain just as important—and not just financially speaking, but to our mental and emotional health. In fact, time and again research has shown how integral social bonds are to staying healthy as an older adult.
Dealing with ongoing loneliness can be tough at any age, but it’s especially hard for older adults. Without strong relationships with friends and family, your aging loved one might feel isolated or even depressed—and this can end up causing real problems both mentally and physically. But, given regular opportunities to connect with others inside their family or their community, your loved one’s mental-emotional health can blossom, giving both them and you peace of mind.
Mental Health Benefits of Social Connection for Older Adults
Building strong bonds and relationships with others can improve your loved one’s self-confidence, sense of hope, and even their motivation to take care of themselves. For example, having a regular family or friend date night each week gives your loved one a reason to dress up a little, make sure they’re well rested, and have something fun to look forward to over the days leading up to it. Essential to mental well-being, simple things like exercise and good hygiene usually seem relatively easy to do when you’re excited for life and eager for socialization.
On the other hand, those tasks might seem more arduous to someone who doesn’t see friends or family often—it can seem pointless to spend effort on yourself if there’s no clear motivation for it. An empty social calendar can leave too much room for your loved one to let go of self-care, exercise, and a good diet, which can negatively impact their psychological health. Having frequent contact with family, a steady stream of social activities, and regular dates with friends can help ensure that your loved one feels healthier, happier, and more vibrant—and there are simple ways you can help.
How Caregivers Can Support Their Loved One in Maintaining Relationships
As caregivers, of course we want to make sure that our aging loved one grows old surrounded by people they love and care for, and vice versa. But unexpected circumstances happen to the best of us—careers change, people move or get divorced, and sometimes our loved one can wind up in a city without family or a social network. Or perhaps they live nearby, but still the relationship has dwindled as lives have gotten busier. Happily, there are some approaches caregivers can take to help ensure that, no matter what, an older adult stays connected to family and community.
Increase Your Loved One’s Connection to Family
Living near family members can create opportunities for intergenerational bonding. If your aging loved one lives near one of their adult children, they can easily join in on family dinners, or any of their child’s social activities. And when grandchildren are around, the benefits multiply: being able to visit their grandkids’ school plays, or come along on family outings over the weekend can offer older adults an endless amount of exciting occasions to look forward to.
- Make their location work by visiting: If your loved one doesn’t live near family but needs to stay put, make a plan to visit them regularly. Even if you can only visit every 3 months, mark your next trip on their calendar before you leave at the end of a stay so they can look forward to it. Knowing they have an upcoming visit from family can give them something to feel excited about.
- Relocate to make home care possible: If your loved one lives far away, find out if they’re able to relocate to be closer to you or another family member. You can also consider inviting them to live with you to make it even easier to care for them.
- Invite them to family events: If your loved one does live closeby, be sure to invite them to any social occasions they might enjoy, including events at your children’s school, your own dinner parties, a block party on your street, or a potluck with the neighbors.
- Phone them often: Getting regular phone calls can also bring joy and connection to an otherwise lonely day. Don’t hesitate to phone your loved one to ask them for advice regarding a career move, parenting, or relationships—or just to chat. Meanwhile, having regular Skype or Facetime chats add an extra layer of connection to your conversations when you’re apart.
Find Activities That Expand Your Loved One’s Network
While being in close contact with family members can make a huge difference to your loved one’s quality of life, having a wider social network can be just as impactful. Participating in activities with other older adults can give them an opportunity to connect with people going through similar experiences—they can share laughs as well as tears over similar feelings, and learn from one another.
Further, the people they meet will form a larger network of friends whom they can call on for help in the future. Maybe your loved one enjoys engaging in sports, volunteer work, or joining book clubs. Whatever their interests, pick a few activities they can do on a regular basis.
- Check out their local community center: See if there are any classes that your loved one’s interested in joining. This can add structure to their week, and enable them to connect with others much more frequently.
- Find interesting groups for older adults: Maybe there’s a book club held by a friend, or a lecture series put on by the local library. Having a reason to get out of the house can help your loved one stay sharp and motivated.
- Look for nearby volunteer opportunities: Volunteering at a local organization will help your aging loved one feel appreciated, meet other well-meaning people, and form a broader social network.
- Explore social groups: Organizations like the Red Hat Society, Veterans Clubs, and even online forums, are great places to meet like-minded older adults. They also have regular meetings that your loved one can attend weekly or monthly so they always have something to look forward to.
Help Your Loved One Nurture Ongoing Relationships
It’s so easy to lose touch even with the closest of friends as we grow older. Even family members can slowly disappear from our lives. And the consequences of diminishing significant relationships can wreck havoc, from emotional loneliness to a practical lack of resources when it comes to home care and help. Finding ways for your aging loved one to maintain lifelong or well-established connections can help with several things: not only will it give them socialization and support, but it can ensure that they have people to call on if ever they need help.
- Keep commitments to friends: It can be tempting to brush off seeing friends if your loved one is feeling tired or depressed. Instead, plan dates in such a way that both people can easily attend without much effort, such as meeting at your loved one’s home, or a nearby coffee shop within walking distance.
- Call up old companions: Maybe your loved one has a best friend from high school or college they haven’t spoken with in ages. There’s no time like the present to reach out and reconnect with old friends, regardless of how much time has passed. People who knew your loved one when they were young will be able to have a special relationship with them that can be very rewarding.
- Don’t forget support groups: Maybe your loved one has dropped contact with friends and family due to grief from losing a spouse, or problems caused by illness or addiction. Attending a local support group related to the issue can help them more forward while connecting with empathetic, understanding people. These groups may also offer resources and tips for home care help if needed.
- Offer support when possible: Your loved one has a lot to offer friends, including emotional support, and practical help. Encourage them to be there for friends in need, including helping out at their house, or cooking for them if they’re able. Being kind to friends is a tried and true way to find value and meaning in our daily lives.
Nurturing relationships with family and friends is such an important aspect of aging well, and one that caregivers can do a lot to help with. By encouraging your loved one to stay closely connected with good friends and family while staying open to meeting new people, you can help them strengthen their community network. Building strong bonds can ensure they have multiple people with whom to celebrate life’s ups and down: it gives them friends to call up for a fun dinner, and also to reach out to for support when times get tough.
Good relationships can act as ongoing motivation for your loved one to take care of themselves while simultaneously nourishing their emotional needs for connection. When caregivers focus on improving their loved one’s social life, everyone benefits—both older adults and their surrounding community. From a homecare perspective, enveloping your loved one with a strong community of caring people is one of the best ways you can help ensure they’ll have support when they need it most.
If you’re unsure how to best support your aging loved one, Institute on Aging offers a range of programs, services, and online resources. Contact us today to learn more.