The isolation we have experienced over the past few years has changed how we live and connect in society. While we can meet friends and family again without restrictions, reconnecting with your community can be challenging. It’s not uncommon to feel a little more lonely or isolated as we get older.
Ensuring you remain engaged with your community helps you to maintain a healthy body and mind.
Just two or three. That’s the magic number of friends we each require in our social network to begin receiving positive health benefits, according to Queensland School of Psychology Professor, Nancy Pachana.
A co-director of the UQ Ageing Mind Initiative and a renowned clinical geropsychologist and neuropsychologist specialising in working with seniors, Nancy says maintaining social connections in later life is essential to reducing the risk of depression and anxiety but also 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. Keeping physically and mentally active, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding stress, are also keys to lowering the risk of depression and anxiety, as well as dementia.”
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.
That said, with the data we have in Australia, about 10 percent of older adults will experience anxiety, and between 10 and 15 percent will experience depression. Rates of depression are higher for those living in residential aged care facilities (around 35 percent).
“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 developing a mental health issue.”
So, while retiring is not necessarily a trigger, leaving work abruptly, particularly for an unexpected health reason, and not having activities or interests to cultivate in retirement can be.
Feeling lonely or isolated can also impact memory. Making new social friendships helps boost your mood and improve your overall wellbeing.
Getting older can bring losses such as close friends moving or passing however, there are ways to meet new people and form social connections at this stage of life. For example, you could join community groups to meet people with common interests such as bowling, cooking or volunteering. Or, you could look at a longer term solution such as moving to a retirement community.
Beryl moved to Taringa Parkside with her husband Arnold five years ago and can vouch for the social benefits of retirement living.
Beryl & Arnold, Residents
“To my mind, I think one of the secrets of aging gracefully is having people to communicate with and people to mix with. For a lot of people, if they’re on their own and aging, they rattle around their house on their own and very rarely talk to others. That’s one of the main reasons I would suggest to people that they move in.”
According to Nancy, 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. Family members of 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.”
In addition, Nancy says physical activity also contributes to a healthy body and mind. 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 people.