Research shows the emotional health benefits of having strong social connections are well known, and that staying socially engaged also benefits health in other ways. People who stay socially engaged and connected to their communities:
- Know about and attend community events and services (such as flu shot clinics)
- Are more likely to get health screenings
- Have greater mobility and are comfortable getting around
- Are more likely to live longer
- Generally have better cognitive health
One 12-year study measured the social activity levels and cognitive functioning of more than 1,100 older adults without dementia. Those with regular social contact had rates of cognitive decline that was 70 percent lower than those with low social activity.
Communities in which residents are active and socially engaged are more likely to have strong social capital. When people connect and give to their communities, the resources, skills and traits valued by the community grow.
Conversely, people who are not socially engaged often are isolated, which can lead to poor emotional health, high blood pressure, depression and a decline in physical health. Studies show that older adults who are isolated and have depression have higher mortality rates than people who are more satisfied with their lives. To find out how connected you are, take AARP's isolation self-assessment or download and distribute the AWLW self-assessment.
Everyone's personality is different, and forming new social connections is daunting to some. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to stay connected so, regardless of your personality type, you can stay engaged and healthy in ways that are comfortable to you.
How to Get Connected
Volunteering is a great way to connect to others and to give back. It can also help people stay engaged and keep them active longer. It is also good for you! The Corporation for National and Community Service finds that people who volunteer live longer, and that volunteering leads to greater life satisfaction and lower rates of depression. Here are some places to help you get started:
Communities have found the benefits of bringing different generations together through intergenerational programs. The HHS Aging Services Coordination office developed the Ages United guide to bring intergenerational engagement options to residents of long-term care facilities. The Ages United guide is for groups of young people that would like to start volunteering at long-term care facilities and participate in meaningful engagement with people who are residents of long term care facilities.
What Organizations Can Do
Organizations can benefit by providing volunteer opportunities for area residents. Volunteers can provide new life to a program's mission by sharing their ideas on how to help the program grow. Organizations and communities looking to create volunteer and engagement options may find this resource helpful.
A key component of aging well is keeping your mind active and stimulated – and a great way to do that is by learning. Not only does learning stimulate the brain, it encourages social interaction and is a great way to make new friends. Learning can give you a feeling of accomplishment, can help you build new skills, and may provide you with skills that can help you find a part-time job or second career.
Universities and community colleges often offer lifelong learning classes. Your local community, recreation or senior center is also a good place to look for learning opportunities. Additionally, consider contacting your local library to see what free learning options they have.
Be Civically Involved
Getting involved with your community is a great way to meet your neighbors and make a difference. Does your neighborhood have a neighborhood association? If so, being involved with it can help you to make a difference in your own backyard. You also could join a civic or social group such as AARP, Kiwanis or the Lions Club.
Civic engagement addresses public concerns and promotes the quality of communities. It also gives older adults a way to meet like-minded people and the opportunity to make a difference in something they are passionate about. Find a cause you care about and get involved. This is an opportunity to make positive change. It is a benefit to you, to the community and to the cause.
Explore Recreation and Hobbies
Visiting a senior center, taking up a new hobby or being outside are all great ways to be healthy and to meet new people. Research from the National Council on Aging shows that older adults who participated in senior center activities and found they could better manage and delay the onset of chronic diseases and improve their physical, social, spiritual, emotional, mental, and economic well-being than could those who did not. And a 2013 study showed that older adults who participate in outdoor recreation have lower rates of depression than those who do not.
There are many ways to be engaged:
- Visit your local senior center
- Become a Master Naturalist or a campsite host
- Learn a new hobby
- Attend an art class
- Plant a community garden
- Play a new board game
- Go to a community dance
- Try out for a local theater or choral group
What Communities Can Do
Make sure options are available to older residents. They want the same engagement options as everyone else. Don't limit your programs to certain demographic age groups – you will be amazed at what older adults can do.
A growing body of research shows that an important support for older adults who are interested in spirituality or religion is having a spiritual life. Studies show that older adults with spiritual beliefs have an increased psychological well-being and are less likely to develop depression and anxiety.
What Communities Can Do
Communities can help make sure older residents have transportation to services so they may pursue their spiritual interests. Long-term care services providers should consult with and consider the older adult's spiritual beliefs when developing a care plan. Professionals who plan older adults' activities should develop programing around different spiritual practices.
Steps to Start a Community Engagement Program
- Assess local resources to determine the programs, tools and resources that already are available within a community and help identify gaps. The following assessments can be helpful:
- Survey older adults to find out what they would enjoy doing
- Use assessment and survey results to identify needed programs or activities
- If no programs are available to address the identified needs, develop your own engagement program, activity or event to meet the need
- Develop a plan of action with tasks broken down into manageable steps
- Find community partners to help you
- Look for funding (e.g., grants, sponsors)
- Use Be Connected (PDF) to help create community awareness of programs and engagement options.