Ways to maintain social health, remain socially engaged and reduce social isolation throughout the aging process
In summer 2023, I had the opportunity to coordinate and facilitate group activities with the City of Brantford's Healthy Aging Passport Initiative. I also had the honour of speaking at the Finale Celebration, where all the participants and community organization got together to connect and share resources.
It was so refreshing to be out in a collaborative and engaging group setting that emphasized the importance of of community participation. For many of us, it was the first time since the pandemic and it's consequent lock downs that we had had the opportunity.
There's no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the devastating impacts of social isolation. Over the years, it has become increasingly evident that mental, emotional, and social health play just as much an important role to our quality of life, as physical health. Various recent studies suggest an increase in loneliness during the pandemic, which put many at risk for adverse physical and mental health outcomes.
Enhanced public health measures in sanitization, broadened views of our holistic well-being and improved accessibility, among other things, has resulted in increased life expectancy, meaning people are living older and longer. However, the experiences of our retirement and long-term care facilities during the pandemic proved that our systems are not yet prepared to support the intricate needs of our vast aging population during times of high stress.
This is why it is important to advocate for ourselves as individuals and as a community.
Before we can advocate for our needs, we must have insight into them.
So, what exactly is “social health,” how do we stay socially engaged and how do we minimize social isolation?
Well, as we know, humans are innately social creatures from birth. Our social health is vital to our quality of life all throughout the aging process. We rely on each other during adolescence for safety, love and guidance.
As we age, we are expected to be more independent. However, we still require the same social support and meaningful interactions as we did in our early life. In order to have optimal social health, we need that sense of safety, guidance, and community.
So, how do we obtain that? Through social engagement! By prioritizing our social health and doing things to stay socially active and engaged, we are reducing our risk of social isolation, and promoting our senses of purpose, belonging and community.
We are all familiar with the term Social Isolation, considering we had to practice this throughout the pandemic. While social isolation may be useful to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, it can be detrimental to our health in other ways. Chronic social isolation and feelings of loneliness are linked to increased mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as other chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Other risks of social isolation and loneliness are lethargy, difficulty sleeping, and memory loss.
An individual can experience social isolation and loneliness from lacking social activity that stimulates and engages them. They may be surrounded by people, but do they feel that sense of belonging and community?
Other factors that make an individual vulnerable to social isolation in addition to inadequate stimulation include:
Public health restrictions
Chronic illness and/or impairments
Loss of loved ones
Lack of exercise
Some signs of unhealthy social isolation are:
Avoiding social interactions, and canceling plans
Experiencing anxiety or panic when thinking about or participating in social situations
Feeling distress during periods of solitude
Spending large amounts of time alone or with extremely limited contact with others
So, what are some ways you can maintain your social health, be socially engaged and reduce social isolation?
Ways to maintain social participation and combat social isolation and loneliness are by:
Trying to get connected on social media
Volunteering your time with organizations that align with your sense of purpose
Spending time around, people, places or even animals that make you feel comfortable and at ease
Trying new things and joining various classes.
Goings for walks on city trails or joining a walking group.
Seeking professional support or calling a help line if you’re feeling lonely.
Some signs of healthy social participation are:
Building new relationships
Making small talk with strangers
Participating in groups
Confidence and high self-esteem
Equal amounts of comfort in spending time with others and alone
When planning social activities, consider how you prioritize the dimensions of your health . For example, you may want to join an exercise club if your physical health is at the top of your list. Alternatively, if your intellectual health is largely your focus, you may want to try a program or group where you are learning a new skill such as practicing a different language.
There are many ways to get involved that highlight your unique story, interests and abilities while appreciating your holistic health needs.
Furthermore, connect with your health care professionals, family and overall support system to review your goals. For many people who've lived their entire life more introverted, social participation may not be as important to them compared to an individual who has always been very active in their social life.
Finally, ask your health care professionals about “Social prescribing” and see if there are any organizations or initiatives in your community that advocate for this practice.
For those that are curious on what “Social Prescribing” is; it’s essentially what we just talked about but from a health care perspective. Social Prescribing is a holistic approach to healthcare that brings together the social and medical models of health and wellness. It involves helping patients to improve their health, wellbeing and social welfare by connecting them to community services.
In conclusion, our social health is important to our overall health and wellbeing throughout the aging process.
Maintaining social engagement and participation that provides you with a sense of purpose and belonging will improve your quality of life. There are organizations available to provide support and resources.
Reach out, ask for help and advocate for your needs!
Your voice matters.