Vail Daily column: Social interaction helps seniors’ health | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Social interaction helps seniors’ health

The long barren hallways of a nursing home, 10 or 20 wheelchair bound frail seniors, heads slumped down, never looking up at the scurrying nurses rushing by to handle one emergency after another — the picture is indelibly written on our minds. This is rarely the case any longer.

Most nursing facilities are quite nice and very accommodating to their patients. However, while many try, their ability to offer anything more than basic socialization is limited.

Study after study has shown that some form of active socialization can have a positive effect on one's health. The sad truth is that as many of our elderly age, they begin to lose their social contacts and there are logical reasons for this loss.

First, our elderly begin to lose their ability to drive — clearly a means to an independent lifestyle; thus limiting their access to friends, relatives and social activities. Second, as one spouse becomes ill, the other spouse becomes more homebound in order to care for his or her spouse — again, further developing a form of social isolationism. And third, as we age, many of our friends pass away — further reducing the potential for normal social contacts. The result is a moderately constant decline in social function as we age.

The need to maintain social interactions, and thus good health, is strong. An article written by Gary M. Skole, "Elderly in Home Care Doesn't Mean a Lack of Socialization," provided the following information:

• Those elderly folks who get out and interact and spend more time with people during cold/flu season actually get fewer colds and illnesses than those who spend most of their time alone.

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• Those folks with a companion pet to interact with have fewer illnesses than people who do not have a companion animal.

• Those who often use the words "I," "mine," and "me" during casual conversation are more susceptible to heart attacks than those who do not focus on themselves.

Our natural immune system is negatively affected by social isolationism. The Harvard School of Public Health performed a study that was published in The American Journal of Public Health, suggesting that "strong social ties, through friends, family and community groups, can preserve our brain health as we age and that social isolation may be an important risk factor for cognitive decline in the elderly."

The study indicated that those elderly engaged in many social contacts had the slowest rate of memory decline. The idea is to not sit and wither away, but rather engage in some form of social activity beyond the limited world of friends.

With this perspective in mind, below are some tips for increasing social activities with the elder person in your life:

• Learn a new skill. Engage your elder in learning a new language, for example. Or any type of brain stimulation game.

• Volunteer — anywhere. Work a part-time job.

• Join other social groups, such as church or civic organizations like Eagle Valley Senior Life.

• Contact the Eagle County Department of Health, the Eagle County Department of Healthy Aging or any local town hall and see what the senior activities are in that area. Another great resource is the Vail Valley Partnership.

• Get your senior fit, join a local gym where social interaction is certainly more prevalent than sitting at home or consider getting them involved with a local physical therapist so they can strengthen their body. Medicare pays for this!

For many elders, their social lifestyle is already in place, yet that does not mean they cannot change. Encourage your loved ones to get up, get out and live again by interacting with others. It can really benefit their health!

Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. For more information, go to http://www.visitingangels.com/comtns or call 970-328-5526.