Just two or three. That’s the magic number of friends we each require in our social network to begin receiving positive health and mental health benefits, according to Queensland School of Psychology professor Nancy Pachana.
She, after all, should know. A co-director of the UQ Ageing Mind Initiative and a renownd clinical geropsychologist and neuropsychologist who specialises in working with active seniors, Nancy says maintaining social connections in later life is an important factor to reducing the risk of depression and anxiety and more common types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
“Social connections include having some close friends or family that you could go to share either happy news or a troubling event. You do not need a really extensive social network to receive positive health and mental health benefits – just two or three close friends is what is thought to be protective. Keeping physically and mentally active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding stress, are also key.”
Nancy says anecdotal evidence suggests that in Australia around 45 percent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Therefore it is important to realise that mental health issues can and do affect people at any stage in their lives.
“That said, with the known data we have in Australia, about 10 percent of older adults will experience anxiety, and between 10 and 15 percent will experience depression. “Age itself is not thought to be a particular risk of developing anxiety or depression, but health, disability, loss and other factors later in life may increase one’s vulnerability to develop a mental health issue.”
Nancy says recent research both here and abroad suggests women tend to be more vulnerable to the development of these conditions than men with and relationship issues, and the loss of a loved one (including family or friends or a beloved pet) all mitigating factors.
While retirement itself is not a risk factor for depression or anxiety, leaving work abruptly, particularly for an unexpected health reason, and not having activities or interests to cultivate in retirement can be.
Only too aware of these overwhelming statistics, Aveo locations across Australia have worked hard at ensuring they are doing their bit to ensure residents in their communities are not shutting themselves away.
Lisa Sim, the village manager of Cherry Tree Grove, in Croydon, Victoria says new residents are invited to a special welcoming morning tea where they are introduced to the residents on the Welcome Committee whose job it is to introduce the resident to village life. This entails making sure they are invited to and attend both internal and external social events such as happy hour, snooker/darts nights, exercises classes and lectures. In addition, the village manager welcomes them on day one and orientates them around the village. Once they are settled, the village manager again makes contact to ensure they are settling in okay and to answer any questions they may have.
While it is done slightly differently at each community, depending on the culture and dynamics, all villages say they are constantly looking for new ways to improve the activities on offer, Lisa says.
Nancy says there are also many local community events that seniors can become involved in. She says National Seniors is an excellent peak body that offers services and advocacy for older people.
Family members and friends of active seniors can also play a part in ensuring their loved ones don’t seek to socially isolate themselves as they get older.
“People who are concerned about a loved one can reach out in friendly ways (e.g. offering to share morning tea, going on an excursion, or even asking for help or advice). Such gestures can make a person who may be experiencing a dip in mood feel valued. Physical activity also has a strong evidence base – so getting out and walking the dog, going to a park and enjoying the birdlife, or taking a long walk by the sea, can all, if pursued regularly, gradually lift mood and instil renewed interest in hobbies and friendships.
“Part of community is looking out for others, and reaching a hand across the literal or figural back fence can really be important to a person in need.
“Older adults deserve respect and the chance to live a high quality of life in a way that brings them meaning and joy, and we as a society need to ensure the conditions in everyday life support this goal.”
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