The Lifeline of Happiness: The Importance of Connection for Older Adults
Embracing Connection for Healthier Lives
Nearly all of us have, or will, feel lonely at some point in our lives. As social interaction is a core component of the human experience, the seeming lack of it is felt deeply. In an increasingly isolated society in which cashiers are replaced by self-checkout machines, shopping is done online, and even doctor appointments are encouraged to take place over the phone, it’s easy to feel the loss of human connection.
A fitting definition for loneliness reads: ‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want’. This definition draws on the seminal work in the field by psychologists Daniel Perlman and Letitia Peplau, Toward a Social Psychology of Loneliness. To examine and measure loneliness, Perlman and Peplau use the ‘cognitive deficit’ model, which views loneliness as “a discrepancy between one’s desired and achieved levels of social relations”. It is widely acknowledged that there are three types of loneliness: emotional loneliness – ‘the absence of meaningful relationships’, social loneliness – a ‘perceived deficit in the quality of social connections’, and existential loneliness – a ‘feeling of fundamental separateness from others and the wider world’.
According to Age UK, the number of people aged 50 and over in England who consider themselves often lonely was 1.36 million in 2017 and is projected to be 2.03 million by 2025. The Financial Times, The New York Times and the Economist have all published articles on the growing loneliness epidemic and its damage to public health.
Whilst loneliness is not a mental health problem in and of itself, it is closely interlinked with poor mental health, and each can worsen the other. Research has also shown that loneliness can manifest itself in physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure and acute stress responses.
Unsurprisingly, social connectedness is associated with better mental health and increased self-esteem and confidence, and it’s important that as we grow older, we continue to ensure we remain socially engaged. Social interactions trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of happiness and reduces stress, and it is proven that this has a significant impact on the cognitive health in older adults. In fact, studies have shown that older people who maintain strong social connections have a reduced risk of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.
Engaging in conversations, participating in group activities, or pursuing hobbies with others can provide mental stimulation, helping to keep the brain active and agile. Being socially active also encourages older individuals to be more physically active. Something as simple as having a purpose to get out of the house can make all the difference.
You can read our Active Life, Less Strife! (ila.life) , which gives ideas for different social activities seniors can look out for and enjoy. As a society we must encourage these activities, promote community involvement and intergenerational interaction. We mustn’t forget that as we look to the future and forge ahead in technological advancements, there are people we don’t want to leave behind. We must work to protect and foster an environment of inclusivity and understanding so that older adults can continue to easily experience the joy and significance that human connection brings.
Author Bio: Chania Fox is a freelance writer with experience in publishing and copywriting. Chania has previously worked for Linen Press, the UK's leading independent female publishing press, as well as working as a copywriter for a global design consultancy with high-profile international clients. She is also available on Linkedin.