Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

The Socially Engaged Senior

Marie Matz recalls the day Rose Wayne struck up a conversation with her. It began with a simple hello, and as they spoke, the two women, aged 86 and 101, discovered how much they had in common, beginning with a love of conversation!

Marie and Rose became good friends, and continue to enjoy conversation and knitting together. Over time, the bond between them has grown stronger. "If she's sick," Marie says, "I worry."

New friendships, and the speed at which they are formed, can seem almost miraculous. Yet they happen all the time because, as social scientists point out, we are all, at every age and stage of life, highly social creatures.

Surveys of seniors reveal that one of the most cherished features of residential communities is the opportunity to form new friendships.

Being socially engaged, studies suggest, improves memory and other cognitive skills. Socially-inclined people tend be more active and to carry that energy in their faces. This, in turn, invites more people to engage and interact with them.

Why Friendships Are Good for You

Socially active seniors not only appear more energetic, but studies show they may actually live longer and feel better. And their mental agility benefits from the interpersonal interaction. Among the more intriguing findings are that:

Friendships boost your longevity.
In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, researchers following nearly 1,500 seniors for a decade discovered that people with a strong social network are likely to live longer.

These findings were duplicated in another study of 1,200 older adults conducted by Biomed Central Geriatrics.

Social activity boosts your thinking skills.
In a study of more than 2,000 older men and women, people who engaged in one or two social activities regularly did much better on cognitive skills tests, according to a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Volunteer work is more satisfying (and rewarding) for seniors.
In a study comparing how adults over 60 and under 60 feel about their volunteer work, researchers found that older adults reported greater improvements in life satisfaction from their work than did younger volunteers. This was especially true among older adults who volunteered for many hours. Older adults also perceived their health as being better than the younger volunteers did. The study was published in The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

It All Starts with a Smile

Social researchers and cognitive behavioral therapists agree that a few simple steps can enrich our social skills and bring the rewards of friendship into our lives:

A pleasant smile while maintaining eye contact is the best invitation to conversation, and almost naturally leads to a remark that initiates conversation. Try it!

Be proactive.
This can take the form of a simple greeting or sharing your impression of a specific event that affects both you and the person you're addressing. Remember, a generous impulse is never wasted.

Build Rapport.
Discover common interests as soon as you can. These can stimulate discussion, give you the confidence to speak more openly about yourself, and put you and your partner on firm ground.

Listen and Learn.
The more you know about your partner, the more you will find opportunities to make helpful and appropriate remarks or suggestions. Knowing who you are talking to also helps you relate your experience to theirs.

Overcome Shyness.
It really can be as easy as that. Experts tells us that focusing on other people's experience is a great escape from ourselves, especially when we are self-conscious to the point of shyness. Ask someone about themselves, and give yourself the challenge of remembering exactly what they tell you.

Keeping the Door Open

Residents at the Jewish Home agree that opportunities to engage with others begin with each new day. And they believe the same applies to seniors everywhere who have a mind to take part in what's going on.

With a little effort, and by keeping the door open, seniors who see themselves as 'loners' can soon find themselves table-hopping, just for the pleasure of catching up with friends and acquaintances.

Political or current events discussions can be a wonderful way of stimulating discussion and bringing opinions to the fore. Often, it is common experiences or shared values that bring seniors together for those invaluable exchanges that blossom into friendship.

It's a wonderful feeling to be accepted for who you are, and, as the data and the testimony of Jewish Home residents show us, well worth the effort we put into it.

Kathleen DohenyKathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based journalist who also writes for WebMD.com, healthday.com, Weight Watchers, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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