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Personal Connections are Good for Your Health

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am a 74-year old divorced woman who is somewhat introverted.  I enjoy being alone.  My children tell me that for my health, I need to be more involved with other people.  What’s the true story here?  

Answer: Your children have a point.  In the recently published book, The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long Healthy Life (Avery, 2010), the late and noted geriatrician Dr. Robert N. Butler devotes two chapters to the subject.  He sums up the issue in three words:  “Connectivity enhances health.”

Researchers have documented the impact of relationships in several areas:

  • Social networks seem to lower the risks of alcoholism, depression, and even arthritis.
  • Patients after surgery require less pain medication and recover more quickly when they have caring people around them.
  • Married people live longer.
  • Lonely older women have higher blood pressure compared to women who have someone in whom they can confide their problems.
  • Men who live in supportive environments have lower levels of stress hormones.

Butler concludes that having caring people around you, or just having contact with them by phone, Internet or other means, is a special kind of health insurance.

Connections can be established through nurturing relationships and by engaging with a larger community.

Let’s first address the nurturing relationships.  Butler suggests the following tips, which are ageless:

Remember that friends like you to listen.
Sometimes friends may just need to vent anger, or share a story or something wonderful that occurred in their lives.  A tuned-in friend knows when it is time to listen, or to offer advice or constructive criticism.

Don’t forget to think before you speak.
It’s good to be honest, yet it also is possible to be kind at the same time. Consider your friend’s priorities and sensitivities.

Know your audience. Distinguish between what your friends are interested in, and what you want them to know.  Be aware if you are enamored with the sound of your own voice.

Think of friends first.
Remember to ask about them before you describe everything that happened during your day.  This holds true even with longtime friends.

Avoid being presidential.
You may be in charge of your work or even your family.  But avoid thinking that you are in charge of every relationship or personal exchange.

Express your feelings. If it feels right, tell people you love them, that they have made a difference in your life.  Let them know if you are happy to see them.

Don’t smother them. Do express yourself, yet be aware of friends’ boundaries and comfort zones.

Be accessible. Cells phones help.  It makes staying in touch easier.  Sending a text message reminds a person you are thinking of her without requiring a response.  Actually, snail mail does the same – a note goes a long way.

Share food with friends. Breaking bread together still works. A meal, lunch, ice cream, coffee or a snack sets the right tone to talk and be with another.

Relationships can change over time because of divorce, death, retirement or relocation. It can be daunting to start over.  Here are a few more tips:

  • Consider determining what you want in a friend, attend community events, join some groups or take a trip.
  • Look into the Road Scholar program, formerly known as Elderhostel.  The program offers learning and traveling opportunities in every state and in 90 countries.  Most “scholars” are over 50 and share a love for learning.  Single adults are made to feel very welcome. Call 800-454-5768.

Clearly you cannot go against your nature of preferring to be alone.    However, consider broadening your circle just a bit. Those relationships will likely add more than health and longevity to your life.  At the same time, your new friends will be enriched, too.

Personal relationships with friends and family are one way to make connections; Communities also draw people together.

An example is a faith-based community, in which individuals are connected by a shared commitment, belief, value and identity.  Schools, clubs, historical societies, book groups, bowling leagues, yoga classes, gyms and adult education programs are other types of community.

A term has been used to describe the special relationship among communities, institutions and individuals.  It is “social capital.”  Robert D. Putman, professor of public policy at Harvard and the author of Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000), defines social capital as features of social organizations that support trust and cooperation that benefit everyone.

Some of the most important social capital occurs when contributing something of ourselves.  It is a link, a vital connection to other people.  Volunteering, a second career, part-time or temporary employment and caregiving are good examples.  Social capital is beyond wealth; it emphasizes self-worth.

According to Butler, we are in a period of a “give-back revolution.”  Take the case of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. In 2008, he announced he was leaving the for-profit world and shifting to a life of philanthropy.  He and his wife, Linda, administer the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which underwrites initiatives for global health, agriculture, education and assistance for the poor.

This “give back” phenomenon is not only for the wealthy.  A 2005 MetLife Foundation Survey, in collaboration with the think tank Civic Ventures, found that half of Americans age 50 to 70 were interested in finding jobs that not only provided income, but helped improve the quality of life in their communities.

If the notion of social capital appeals to you, you may find the following tips from Butler useful:

Make some time: Everyone is busy.  To determine how to invest in social capital requires some thought and reflection.

Create a list and make contacts:
Make some phone calls or send e-mails.  Talk to family, friends and acquaintances and let them know of your interests and skills.  Have these folks be your gatherers of intelligence for information and ideas.

Be a social entrepreneur: Build your own community.  If the one you want doesn’t exist, create it.  For example, if there are no ski clubs for older adults in your area, create one.  If science is lacking in the public schools (and you are a scientist), gather your colleagues and launch a program.

Believe in yourself: Confidence is key.  Albert Bandura, a Stanford psychologist, described “self-efficacy” as a belief that one “can do,” which makes accomplishments achievable.

Do some sleuthing: Read the newspapers, check the Internet, contact locals schools, hospitals, charities and other institutions.  Find out their needs and how they might match your interests and skills.

Now do something: Try something new or familiar.  Take the next step.  The connections will be automatic.

With respect for your desire to be alone, consider the following:    Studies of centenarians have found they almost always have meaningful relationships and are almost never loners.  I think there is a message.

Best wishes to you in expanding your horizons…and enjoying them.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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