“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” -Walt Whitman
A strange and damaging tendency present in both individuals and societies is the assumption that because something is a certain way, and has been for a long time, it should be. That allows us to accept all manner of injustices and to keep in place ideas that have long since been disproven.
One example of that is the idea of loneliness in older adults. We almost take it for granted that as our loved ones or ourselves age they’ll get more isolated. They’ll have fewer friends. The ones they have will move or take ill or die, and their social circle will cinch up.
The problem is that because we assume these things to be true, we don’t take action when they come to pass. And then the cycle is perpetuated until we believe that isolation is a natural part of aging. It isn’t. It is neither inevitable nor good. Companionship for seniors is incredibly important, as important as it is for anyone at any stage of their lives. It promotes better mental health, better physical health, creates new routines, and really, just makes life better.
Cultivating new friendships while maintaining old ones might echo the Girl Scout motto, but it is good for all older adults. Don’t believe that growing old means being alone. Life is still a vibrant journey, and friendships can continue to bring happiness.
Why Companionship is Important For Older Adults
When you think about it, it is deeply weird that we accept loneliness as a natural part of getting old, like it is a medical condition. And it is deeply weird that we rationalize that because it is normal, it must be ok. There is no other time in life when we feel that way. No one says, “It’s good for a 22-year-old to be alone; that’s just the way it is!”
An older adult is no different than the 22-year-old. They might act as if, and even convince themselves to believe that, being alone is ok, because they have internalized the idea, but that is rarely the case. Yes, of course, there are some seniors who do genuinely prefer being alone, or who want to retire away with their books, just as there are people at every age who prefer solitude. And, if genuine, it is something to respect. But you shouldn’t just assume that stoicism implies acceptance and happiness.
Because, the truth is, for most people, a lack of companionship isn’t just sad, it is downright dangerous. Seniors facing isolation are at a higher risk of depression, which, as it sets in, can lead to more isolation and increase depression severity. All too often this can lead to suicidal thoughts and even actions. That’s why we have the Friendship Line: so seniors know there is someone to talk to. Someone who cares.
There are also physical considerations, the most obvious one being that isolation means it is harder to get help when something goes wrong. If a person falls or has a stroke, who knows how long it could be before they get help. This problem has slightly decreased with the rise of mobile phones, but not everyone has them on them at all times, and you might be rendered unable to use them.
So yes: isolation can be bad. But socialization isn’t like taking medicine; it isn’t just about fighting away symptoms. Companionship does more than drive away negative outcomes. It creates positive ones.
The Benefits of Companionship for Older Adults
Breaking free from isolation has many mental health benefits. The brain thrives on activity and stimulation, and withers without it.
Think about it. After retiring, possibly losing a spouse or partner, and having social gatherings disappear, a person can lack the social stimulation that comes with work, with events, and with unexpected happenstances and unforeseen social engagements. Even the most routine workday is a maze of interpersonal relationships. How do you talk to Jan about your weekend, how do you talk to your boss about his mistake, how do you ask for help from a basic stranger in Accounting? All of that is mental effort, and forces you to use the imaginative power of empathy. When you are alone, that goes away.
So seeing other people, whether that is at a spin class, a yoga seminar, computer lessons, or just a regular lunch, forces the brain to be active. It creates new patterns in the week and new responsibilities. It creates new social engagements. It can make you try new things. And that’s always healthy. Making the brain work doesn’t just fend off dementia and Alzheimer’s. It makes it stronger and more flexible, helping you continue a lifetime of learning. Making plans and figuring out activities keeps the brain strong, like working out. And the more social engagements you have, the more likely you are to take care of yourself and maintain proper hygiene, a clean home, maybe plants for when friends drop by. That has been shown to fight off depression.
Social activities have another added benefit: it lets you feel cared for and supported. You are not just practicing empathy; others are practicing it toward you. You are being seen as another person, and not just a lingering shadow. The other side of that is that you are caring and supporting other people as well. You’re giving them that gift, just as you are getting it. Both sides of this are important for people to feel valued, safe, and filled with purpose.
Socialization, of course, often involves physical activity as well. When you are moving, you are getting exercise, even when exercise isn’t your intent. Just the act of getting up and doing things can make you stronger, which boosts the immune system and helps prevent osteoporosis.
Beyond Health: Life is Worth Living
Medically, this is all very good! But let’s take off the lab coat for a second. After all, no one has watched an achingly beautiful sunset with a new friend, and when asked what they were thinking, waxed rhapsodically about the benefits to their immune system.
To me, the point of mental and physical health isn’t the health in and of itself. This isn’t a video game where you get points at the end for how much power you have left. It’s about the ability to enjoy things like those sunsets and like those friendships.
Honestly, it is a reinforcing cycle. Reaching out and finding companionship makes you healthier, and that health helps you continue to reach out and find companions. It allows you to enjoy them. It allows you to continue to explore, to create, to find new paths where you had thought the highway overgrown with vines and jungle thickness. You hack through them, and find a new road.
There is never a time when isolation is “ok”, and never a time where you are too old to have fun with old friends or meet new ones. Every person is a mystery until you know them, just like every day is a fresh page until you live it. Fill that page with ideas and activities, and solve that mystery. Enjoying your life begins with saying hello.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs and services.