Helping People—Other Than Betty White—Make Connections

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It’s not easy growing older in America — and most would agree that society has not done a very good job of preparing anyone for it.

Experts on aging say that “round birthdays” — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, and onward — often cause the most stress. They seem imbued with a special meaning, and for many, a special terror — especially as they age.

“The Betty Whites of the world have enormous resources,” says Patrick Arbore, Director and Founder Elderly Suicide Prevention & Grief Related Services at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. “Most of us don’t have 1/10 of that.”

Scientific Proof That It’s Hard

Though it doesn’t take an empirical study to confirm that many people approach a new decade of life with trepidation, a recent survey did just that. Researchers concluded that most people “audit the meaningfulness of their lives as they approach a new decade in chronological age.” This often causes them to behave in drastically different ways as they contemplate entering a new decade. In younger people, that may mean signing up to run their first marathon, running a faster marathon than the one they ran previously, or having an extramarital affair. In older people, it more often means questioning the will and wherewithal to go on living.

Sociologists suggest that men have an even harder time aging than women, with a significant number thinking about ways to escape reality — often through suicide. Men who are 85 and older are 15 times more likely to die by suicide than women. A number of factors make it “easier” for them to commit the act — especially if they have been around death in some way: hunters, veterans, working as veterinarians or doctors, participating in a former botched suicide attempt.

Men may also struggle more since most of them tend to be less adept at cultivating and keeping deep personal relationships than women, and the stresses of life are simply easier if shared.

Lest you need more proof that seniors who achieve the tricky dance of staying socially connected are happier and healthier than their cohorts who are more isolated:

  • Maintaining social relationships positively affects a range of health outcomes, including mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk, according to a recent study
  • A study of older adults living in assisted living facilities found that the simple things, such as the perceived friendliness of other residents and staff was significantly associated with life satisfaction and far fewer depressive symptoms
  • And finally, a recent survey of nursing home residents showed that social relationships formed with other residents was a much stronger predictor of depression and loneliness — stronger even than social relationships with friends and relatives outside the institution.

And here, quality may trump quantity. “You don’t need 750 ‘friends’ on Facebook to get you through a dark night,” Arbore says. “You need one real one.”

Helping Others Make Connections

To those on the outside looking in, the remedy often seems simple: Seek out people to connect with at a senior center, a church social, an adult education course, a community lecture, a bookstore book group. But older people who are feeling alienated most often ignore gentle suggestions or outright nagging to take any of these steps.

“Part of what often happens is that people become suspicious, and they get past the tipping point about whether they want to connect with others at all,” Arbore says.

And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those with low connectedness typically feel distant, like outsiders in a crowd. Others in the room are rarely drawn to interact with the wallflowers — those looking withdrawn, with hands folded over their chests; they assume those people simply don’t want to talk.

Additional complications: new or worsened limitations in mobility, sight, and hearing or medications that make them feel sluggish or edgy makes some older people feel less like engaging with others.

Loneliness, a natural reaction to social isolation, is another culprit. Arbore points out that when people are hungry, thirsty or in physical pain, they usually take action: eat something, drink something, take an aspirin, or call a doctor for an appointment. “But when we feel lonely, we tend to do nothing,” he says.

So seniors who have become withdrawn may need a little help from their concerned friends to reconnect with those around them. A few suggestions follow.

  • Emphasize friendships. Help them see the value in real friendships and truthfulness in relationships, perhaps by discussing how a person has helped them through a rocky time in the past. But also help them realize that making meaningful connections takes time and patience.
  • Cultivate a community connection. Gently bring people in so that they feel like a valuable part of the community—connections are paramount.
  • Call in the volunteers. Get a volunteer to help with tasks that improve an individual’s quality of life but may present a challenge for him or her, such as learning how to Skype or address holiday cards to friends for those who are no longer capable of it. An added benefit is often that the volunteer provides some companionship, or at least the opportunity to practice becoming social for those who have grown rusty at it.
  • Be present. Give the person your undivided attention. Bear in mind that many of them have not had anyone truly focus on them in a while, and may be uncomfortable with it at first. Silence is often underrated. Sitting quietly beside them can be powerful and helpful. Allow yourself to “be with” them rather than “do to” them, Arbore urges. If a person is an introvert by nature, be especially careful to go slowly; shed your expectation that you can help break through to them in one or two conversations. If conversation is difficult, start small: remark on the movements of a bird, the color of a flower, the pattern of a bedspread.
  • Talk about the elephant in the room. Find ways to talk about the process of aging and how it feels. Mention some of the positive aspects: gaining wisdom and skills.
  • Walks, schedules, and non-awful people. In her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne LaMott writes of the small steps you can urge to help pull a person through a dark time: “Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.”

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