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Does Socializing Help the Elderly (or Does Reading)?

Tara Parker-Pope on whether socializing helps elderly people healthwise. Actually the comments are much more interesting that the blog post itself: One Barbara writes:

I am growing weary of these studies and how valid the results are. There is a huge bias in our society that being social is better than being a loner. I have seen children pushed into an unhappy social life. What about introspection and studying – are they no longer positive?

Over the years I have moved around a lot to different countries and parts of this country but as people age it is increasing difficult to make new meaningful relationship. Like most young people I choose to be social online rather than stand around mouthing platitudes and polite but extremely dull ’social chat’. I have tried social groups like that and frankly I would rather be home with a good book.

Also the statement that playing Bridge will keep your mind sharp is nonsense. I was bored by Bridge in college and I am now.

Americans are constantly coming up with new schemes to make us all ‘normal’ and too much alike. How completely boring. Socializing isn’t the the answer for everyone. What about all the very social people who develop dementia and Alzheimers. Nobel Prize winners develop the same. I think going for a nice long hike alone in nature will do just as much for you. Introverts Unite. — Posted by Barbara Crowley

A friend of mine (Michael Barrett) writes:

These comments seem more interesting and thoughtful than the study. I hope I’m warding off dementia with this time-consuming surfing.

Barbara (#13), I very much like your provocative and articulate post about the American prejudice for socializing over solitude. I hope you won’t mind a little friendly provocation back at you, but when I look carefully at some your statements, I get the impression that you think of interaction with others in terms of mouthing platitudes with boring people. Why is that? Don’t you know anybody as smart and interesting as you? At the risk of mouthing a platitude, people who find activities with others boring might be the boring ones.

Since you obviously know how to express yourself, are well read, and don’t mind pushing others’ buttons a little, let me make a suggestion that could make your next oppressively enforced social interactions bearable. If others don’t read or don’t like the same books as you, we can at least assume they’ve had a life. So forget about being polite and ask them if they remember their first lover, or how they lost their virginity. What did they do in the war (whichever war)? What was their first job and how much did they get paid? What person have they hated the most? Who loved the most? Did they ever have an abortion? Did they ever have a homosexual encounter, or know anyone gay? What comic strip did they love as a child?

If they can’t rise to questions like these and others, I give you permission to give up on them. But in order to find other people interesting, you must first be interested instead of perpetually thinking “I’m wasting my time that could be spent hiking or reading.” If you’re not interested, then others have permission to give up on you.

Don’t take this personally. I speak entirely as a person who would usually rather read than hang around others, which may be why I’m online, so I know where you’re coming from. I also know that my solitude isn’t necessarily a badge of honor.

I say something:

To make the obvious connection: book clubs and reading groups are a good activity for introverted book lovers. Some studies of youth who play videogames show that it is a socializing activity (despite the fear that it leads to cocooning). Books, like videogames give people new things to talk about, and the perspective of different generations about a book is always appreciated.

Another brilliant remark by Doug Terry:

In regard to the separation of cause and effect, some events can be both cause and effect, closely intertwined. It isn’t necessarily “either/or”. In general, however, I have no doubt that social engagement has great benefits at all stages of life. One aspect, in fact, of longer life in Mediterranean peoples could be, beyond diet, the fact that they live in a social structure which allows frequent interaction with others. In contrast, we have a social system in the States which places value on isolation from others. As soon as anyone comes into a significant sum of money in the U.S., what do they do? They build or buy a big house on a big lot, away from others. The most “exclusive” residences feature long driveways and even locked gates to keep people out. One pays for “first class” on airlines, in part, to avoid talking with those seated around you. The executive suites of major corporations are quiet zones, guarded by executive assistants, where the actual business of the corporation, and its people, can be presumed to be a distant, unknown world.

In Europe, it is common to see older and younger generations dinning together in restaurants. Here, they must remain separated, except for a few special occasions. It is presumed that the very young live in a world unknown to their parents and the clash of these worlds, and values, must be avoided. What is actually avoided is calm social interaction and the sharing of values as well as the experience and wisdom of older people.

The practice of shipping old people, or them shipping themselves, off the Florida for the last decade or so of life is, in part, a reflection of social denial of death. To look on the old is to see where we all will one day reside, if we live long enough.

The study of older people, memory loss and other related health issues, is something that is clouded greatly by our conditioned attitudes toward aging. As one example, it has been confirmed that tissue studies done on aged brains included those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, the studies were biased by contaminated samples. This, however, fits in with the notion of prejudicial assumptions about the effect of aging. It is widely assumed by many that older people are bumbling idiots. In this case, those with serious dementia issues are taken by younger people, including doctors, as representative samples.

We are in a new age in regard to aging. People are living longer on average and many more people are healthy well into their 70s and 80s. The effects of aging are stark and undeniable, but we haven’t begun to understand what could be consider “average” or “normal” effects.

Phil adds:

While social activities are important for any age group, especially the elderly, this is basically “feel good” research. As such, many people can associate with the theme, but can’t use it to get any results in the real world. If it were possible, a survey of persons over 80 years of age, i.e., actually elderly (not 50’s or 60’s) would likely show that many persons with dementia had very active social lives prior to their current condition.

The problem with research of this type, even when it comes from Harvard, is that it takes up valuable discussion time which could be used to “definitely” PREVENT a significant number of “future” dementia cases. That discussion should be on “drug-induced dementia”. Every day, an elderly person is given prescription drugs at home or anesthesia during major surgery which induces a dementia. Unfortunately, some medical personnel have a sudden “memory loss” and forget that the drug or anesthesia is the problem and proceed to prescribe “Alzheimer’s drugs”. Given that the patient is elderly, expectations quickly build that this is a case of dementia. Solving the problem of drug-induced dementia won’t solve all of the dementia problems, including Alzheimer’s. However, it should be able to prevent a reasonable number of elderly patients from being admitted to a nursing home for a problem they don’t have. If the Harvard researchers and the other Alzheimer’s organizations are truly interested in the mental well-being of citizens, why not focus on this problem and solve it. Don’t be surprised if the remaining pool of patients with confirmed dementias will be much smaller.

This question affects me directly on several levels. First, my dad has Alzheimer’s and our family is never sure whether social causes aggravated its onset. Getting old and retiring can be a isolating activity. My dad, normally a very social guy became hard of hearing and didn’t stay active during retirement; we have to wonder whether it may have contributed. My mother, who is very socially engaged, nonetheless lives in a retirement community. At first glance, that sounds like a good option, but these segregated neighborhoods might not offer the  variety of social contexts you might  find in a mixed neighborhood. Finally, as someone who has been single all of my life, I have to deal with solitude on a daily basis, and writing only makes it harder.  It removes lots of opportunities for meeting people; I just don’t have the chance to hang out with people (though I do enjoy it). I try to stay very engaged, both in life and friendships and families and organizations. But it’s not the same.  I consider my life uneventful, and not particularly prone to depression or mood swings, but isolation increases the self-focus (and therefore the stress). There is no feedback from others, no stress buffers, no people to intervene if you feel overwhelmed. In fact, single people are usually counted on to “help out” couples and families with the “burden of raising a family.”). I’m not really complaining. In fact, if viewed in a certain way, single people have a much more interesting network of friends and acquaintances in a way that married people can’t imagine.  Married people make lots of contacts by necessity. Babysitters, teachers, day care workers, neighbors. They just don’t have time to make the acquaintance of a random person in the supermarket.  Single people have lots of freedom in making and keeping friends  (and they don’t need to ponder the consequences of their actions on their significant other). For remarkable insight into living alone, see Barbara Feldon’s remarkable book Living Alone and Loving It.  As an aside, many religious people (especially Catholics) have insights into the solitary contemplative life.

(Conversely, as Leslie Kaufman reports, they also now are developing  insights about loving partnerships).

Conversations with real people may be more therapeutic than reading (or videogaming, etc), but it can also be very boring. Why hang around real people when you could be hanging around Flaubert or Kafka? Generally, no one can stay socially engaged all the time. They have to replenish their energies alone. For me, the problem is lacking time to do these solitary pursuits. Does that mean having to push away family and friends….just to finish that 3rd novel by R.K. Narayan? The choices are stark and confusing. 

On a related note, I am trying to lose weight and  logging progress at this URL  (public, but not so public that readers will remember to follow it).

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Sarah Elkins 6/15/2008, 6:38 am

    I thought Narayan’s Painter of Signs was pretty good — I liked the details and storytelling — but I haven’t sought out anything else by him. Anything I should make a special effort on? It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything from an Indian author.

    More importantly, this was a really interesting entry. I hadn’t thought about the similar social engagement (or lack thereof) situation between older people and young single people.

    One of the things I really liked about curling (when I lived in upstate NY) was the socializing between people of all ages.

  • Mark 7/14/2011, 4:49 pm

    You’re right about the social benefits of assisted living. I was reading on the St Andrew’s Resources for Seniors System blog about the importance of socializing as we age. It’s good for your mental health! http://www.standrews1.com/blog/

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