Like exercising and eating right, we know that staying socially engaged is good for us.
“Evidence from well-constructed, prospective, randomized and double-blinded studies over many years clearly indicates better healthcare outcomes for [adults] who maintain strong relationships,” says Rosier Dedwylder, a family medicine MD in King George, VA. “The data supports that we are indeed social creatures, and that we need each other not only to survive but to thrive.”
How do social relationships affect health?
Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study monitored mental and physical health in two groups from 1939 to 2014, and objectively established the value of social relationships. The research found that a strong support network – no matter how small – calms our nervous systems, maintains brain health longer, and decreases physical and emotional pain.
Invest in Social Relationships
“It’s critical that we pay as much attention to maintaining our social networks as we do our weight, blood pressure or sugar levels,” notes Rimas Jasin, executive director of PSS in New York, which offers a range of services for healthy aging and caregiving. But sometimes it feels impossible to maintain existing friendships and form new relationships later in life.
Any one of these ideas makes it easier:
- Make plans with a friend to run errands together.
- Join a walking group or fitness class to combine exercise with social time.
- Use technology like video chats or social apps to “see” people when you can’t meet in person.
- Take advantage of online chats and special interest groups.
- Volunteer at a local charity, civic group, or performance/cultural venue.
- Pursue your favorite hobby with a group like a book club or community garden.
Social interactions form an emotional safety net, especially when we share our challenges with others.
“That true friend will help to raise us up if we forget our self-worth, and remind us of both disappointments and triumphs,” Dedwylder says. That’s really helpful when we’re feeling down, frustrated or guilty – which every caregiver feels from time to time. Our truest friends remind us of our ability to care for others, and keep us from feeling sorry for ourselves.
We earn similar emotional benefits from support groups and care circles, Jasin adds. “[We] can gain so much from the experiences of others - from practical tips and advice to the realization that the frustrations and anxiety we’re experiencing are perfectly normal.”
Engage Community Support
Unfortunately, many of us are reluctant to access support networks.
“There is the Superwoman / Superman syndrome in this country where needing help is perceived as some kind of weakness,” laments Sheila Warnock, founder and president of ShareTheCaregiving, Inc. / Share The Care™, which offers resources to reduce the impact of caregiving through a collaborative model.
In fact, she counters, asking for and getting help is a sign of strength.
As we get older, enlisting support shows we’re realistic, responsible and able to remain independent. For caregivers, being a “good” son or daughter means ensuring care and safety is provided – by ourselves or others. Successfully balancing self-sufficiency with smart support is affirming and empowering.
- Assess objectively the things you need help with and brainstorm specific tasks others can take on. These may be practical things like transportation and repairs, or emotional support like visitation, hobbies or religious study.
- Determine who can provide the assistance – family, friends or a wider community like a care circle, service organization or professional caregivers.
- Give yourself permission to ask for help.
“No one expects you to reciprocate,” Warnock asserts. “Allowing friends, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances to help is actually giving them a gift because it can be an opportunity…to feel they are doing something positive in their lives to help others.” Recipients of this support benefit, too, of course, from reduced stress, improved care and new friendships.
Benefit from Connections
The data is clear that interacting with and relying on others is vital to our emotional and physical wellbeing.
“It’s more about quality than quantity when it comes to promoting health through healthy relationships,” Dedwylder notes. “Some will find healthy social relationships with relatively fewer friends or partners. Even the most introverted, self-sufficient or antisocial among us will be wise to recognize sooner rather than later that we do better physically, mentally and emotionally when we do it together rather than alone.
When we engage our friends and co-travelers in life, we support them when the road we follow together gets rough and discouraging,” he concludes. “In so doing, we take little heed that they provide the same invaluable supportive role for us on our path.”
Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.