Aging in place is becoming a more popular topic among academics and families alike. The benefits of aging in place are staggering. There are too many to list here, but for the purposes of brevity, benefits include:
Stress reduction. Most seniors want to continue living in their homes, rather than move to assisted living facilities. Aging in place can spare them what can be a serious toll on their mental health.
Reduced infrastructure costs. On a societal level, leveraging existing infrastructure (the seniors’ homes) could reduce infrastructure costs associated with creating seniors’ living facilities.
Reduced disease transmission. The transmission rates of illnesses in old folks homes can be quite high, as the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have taught us in the most painful way.
Having established that there are significant potential benefits to aging in place, it’s now time to look at one of the key challenges to aging in place – a challenge which could be transformed into one of its biggest benefits.
The Benefits of Socialization
It seems to be a given that socialization has incredible health benefits, but it’s important to take the time here to detail a bit more fully why socialization is so important:
First, let’s focus on mental health. No one likes to feel alone. There are two types of isolation – actual isolation, in which a person has little to no contact with other people, and perceived isolation, in which a person, whether or not they see other people, doesn’t feel connected with others.
In either case, the mental health impacts can be dramatic. Isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, and all kinds of other mental health problems. Conversely, regular socialization can inoculate against these problems, improve memory, and prevent cognitive decline. As Winnipeg home care service, Partners for Homes, puts it (rather succinctly): “By staying social, you can reduce your risk of dementia”.
Next, we can look at the physical and social costs of isolation. When there are people around you, you’re more likely to have others encouraging you to take care of your health. A person with a bad back, living alone, might not do anything about it, but if they can complain about it to their friends, they might be encouraged to go see a doctor.
Further, high degrees of social integration can lead to preventive measures being taken to help seniors’ health. For example, neighbors who know a senior well might shovel an icy driveway – thus preventing the senior from slipping and falling down. Integration can lead to much better health outcomes as a result.
Aging in Place and Socialization
Now we come to the crux of the problem. Aging in place has incredible benefits. Socialization has incredible benefits. The trick is to integrate the two together.
On the one hand, this outcome is more readily achieved by factors outside of societal control. Things like how close they are with their family (both physically and emotionally), how many children and grandchildren they have, their (and their family’s) physical and mental health, and other factors all contribute massively to whether or not a senior will feel isolated.
Other components are things we can more easily control. Volunteer programs that encourage citizens of a given neighborhood to meet and interact with seniors are one option. Another is to create more walkable neighborhoods, making seniors and other people more likely to connect at random. An abundance of community centers, filled with diverse activities, are another good way to go. So too are public parks and other gathering places. In brief, encouraging people to meet each other and foster a sense of community is a good way of reducing isolation.
We might also leverage medical and digital technologies to reduce isolation while aging in place. Teaching seniors how to use FaceTime, Zoom, or other video conferencing technologies can help them stay social, even when they can’t go outside. You might also encourage them to improve their immune system especially in winter by using supplements like Vitamin D (which may also improve mood).
In conclusion, it certainly is possible to improve socialization and encourage aging in place simultaneously. All it will take is a concerted effort by friends, families, and communities – when we come together at all levels, we can improve seniors’ health. And when seniors’ lives are improved, all of our lives are.