The Importance of Socialization for Seniors

The benefits of socialization have been well documented. Various studies have shown that socialization can be as important to well-being as physical activity. The benefits are particularly significant for seniors and can include improved physical fitness and cognitive health, greater self-esteem, reduced anxiety and stress, and decreased risk of depression. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that seniors who are socially active may have slower rates of declining memory.

The Risks of Social Isolation

To understand the crucial role of socialization in seniors one must first understand the implications of its absence: social isolation. Definitions of social isolation range from the objective—the absence or lack of a social support network, to the subjective—the feeling of loneliness experienced as a result of that absence or lack. But loneliness may be experienced even with a healthy support network, and not all who lack such a network experience loneliness. Therefore a more inclusive definition is probably the most accurate, one that considers both real social disconnectedness (e.g., a small social network and/or infrequent participation in social activities) and perceived disconnectedness or isolation (e.g., feelings of loneliness or perceived lack of social support).”

Health risks associated with social isolation have been documented since the 1990s.  As many as one-third to one-half of older adults are affected by loneliness or social isolation, which has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. Social isolation has been linked to depression, cognitive decline, increased physical disabilities, decreased resistance to infection, and increased mortality. Majd Alwan, senior VP of technology at D.C.-based LeadingAge and executive director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), told Home Health Care News recently that the negative effects of social isolation on health were the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

As crucial as it is, however, socialization can be challenging for seniors.  Aging presents increasing obstacles to socialization, and a recent Humana Inc. survey found that more than 30% of Americans aged 65 and older don’t feel socially engaged. Retirement, physical ailments, declining physical mobility, loss of a spouse or loved one, cognitive decline, lack of transportation, living alone, and a dwindling social network all make socialization more challenging for older adults.

Opportunities for Socialization

It is important for seniors to participate in group social activities, as these have been found to be most effective in alleviating social isolation. Research also emphasizes the particular value of friend networks, in addition to family and/or caregivers. Joining clubs and volunteering, attending church, or visiting with peers at a senior center or adult day care are ways for seniors to interact with peers and to maintain or develop a more extensive social network. Family outings, and caring for a pet are also good opportunities for socialization. Social media and the internet are playing an increasing role in the fight against social isolation for many seniors, as well, although not every senior will have the ability or the desire for online socialization.

Socialization and Aging in Place

Most older adults would prefer to remain in their homes—as many as 90%, according to a 2017 article by the American Association of Retired Persons(AARP). But social isolation affects as many as one-third to one-half of older adults, and those who stay at home may be particularly vulnerable. Indeed, to a significant extent, our ability to keep older adults at home—to allow the aging in place that most seniors prefer—may depend to some degree on our ability to accurately assess and appropriately address each individual’s degree of social engagement and risk for social isolation. Make sure that your EMR allows documentation of a patient’s social environment, including things like major life changes, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and access to caregivers.  As new studies continue to define and refine our understanding of the critical role that socialization plays for seniors, the home health care industry must continue to refine its assessment of patients’ social networks and their risk for social isolation.