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Relationships and Social Connections Can Help You Live Longer

by Anne Holladay, CNHA, MHA, FACHCA

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There are many ways to improve your health, well-being, and chances of living longer. Typically, Americans will try to lose weight, exercise daily, and eat well. While all of those play an important role in your health and happiness, studies show people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.

Harvard University began a study in 1938 to identify predictors of healthy aging. The 80-year study spans different ages, genders, races, and economic status. The most powerful finding in the study is good relationships keep us happier and healthier. There is a direct correlation if you are more socially connected to family, to friends, to a community, you are happier, you’re physically healthier, and you live longer than someone who is less well connected.

Another study looking health and aging around the world found similar results. The Blue Zone project began when a National Geographic Fellow discovered five places where people lived the longest and were the healthiest. These five “Blue Zone” regions had the highest concentration of people over 100 years old. Although the Blue Zone project shows that diet and movement play a role, it also demonstrated that families, social tribes, and community played a significant role in living a happy, long life.

The sad news is, as you age, you often feel more isolated. The studies indicate if you are more isolated you tend to be less happy, your health declines earlier in midlife, your brain functioning declines sooner, and you live a shorter life than people who are not lonely. Even more troublesome—more than one in five Americans of all ages report they're lonely.

Tips for Building Your Social Connections and Forming New Relationships

If you are ready to start building your social connections, here are some tips:

  • Replace screen time with people time.
  • Make an effort to meet new people—introduce yourself and start a conversation.
  • Plan regular coffee dates with friends.
  • Visit your local senior center and join outings or classes.
  • Take long walks with your spouse or family members.
  • Join a gym.
  • Volunteer at a local organization with a large volunteer staff, such as a hospital or historical society.
  • Start or join a book club in the community.
  • Find a church with an active community.
  • Visit your family members, especially the elderly or isolated loved ones.
  • Join retirement groups or invite yourself to an existing group.
  • Reach out to long-lost family members and rebuild your tribe.

If you are homebound, call your local area agency on the aging or local church to ask about community transportation for event or group activities. This may also be a time that you consider moving into a personal care home or assisted living facility. Although no one wants to move out of their house full of precious memories, living alone can be even more isolating.

Personal care homes and assisted living facilities allow for independence, but also provide a much-needed support system. In group living facilities, you can eat three meals a day with others, attend regular activities, and get the social interaction that can help keep your mind sharp. Many people that move into a care home, wonder why they waited so long.

If you or your loved one is unsure about personal care homes or assisted living facilities, most facilities have respite care services. This means you could stay at the facility for a set length of time while your caregivers are on vacation or spending the winter in warmer weather. It is a great way to try out a different social and living situation—temporarily.

It’s never too late to start building relationships and your social circle. Take baby steps at first. Go meet your neighbors or stop and talk with people at the grocery store. Just make sure you are more engaged with your world and start making new friends—it could help you live longer.

Anne E. Holladay is the vice president for operations - Senior Communities with UPMC Susquehanna. Anne is a certified nursing home administrator and has regional responsibility for senior communities at UPMC Susquehanna.