How old are your parents, your grandparents? How often do you text, call, drop by for a little conversation over a cup of tea and why does it matter?
Webmd.com reported on a 2013 study on social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women, published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which found that a lack of social contact was a bigger predictor of early death than just feeling alone.
“Social contact is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The scientific evidence is that being socially isolated is probably bad for your health, and may lead to the development of serious illness and a reduced lifespan,” said lead researcher Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London.
My grandmother happens to be a living testament to this study at 98 ½ years old. She has a pacemaker, sinus issues, and suffers from vertigo at times. Like anyone she battles the occasional cold, flu, and pneumonia, but has managed to fight back and recover every time. She is not overweight, can still walk on her own, and her brain not only engages but remembers.
She still lives in her home, which she has occupied for sixty years. She has outlived three husbands, the last one having passed more than fifteen years ago, but has enjoyed the company of a cat until this past October. She has three children still living nearby as well as a slew of grandchildren and great grandchildren, with a great-great grandchild due to arrive just before her 99th birthday. The truth is that her pad may have been vacated years ago if not for the assistance provided by family and caregivers.
The one thing I know is that my grandmother has had constant contact with people throughout her elder years. She’s been lucky- enjoying visits with family and conversing with those who care for her gardens or clean her home. People have been in her life consistently not only when she was mobile but also when she became more confined to her home.
About eight years ago it hit me; my grandmother is ninety, how much longer will she be around? So, I started taking advantage of time. I would drive two hours to visit with her, trying to record as much of her life’s story as possible. But, over that time I realized that although the writer in me wanted to sap her for information, the grand daughter in me could see, hear and feel how much each visit meant to both of us. We were getting to know each other in a way we had never done before.
Our time together far exceeds just checking ‘the visit’ box. It is time well spent sharing our opinions, our laughter, our lives, all while enjoying a cookie with a spread of Nutella, a hot cup of tea, and a warm embrace by our time’s end. For me, it’s been about spoiling her with homemade baked goods and flowers from a local supermarket or farm stand, and taking her out to lunch. It’s about both of us becoming ‘phone’ people when it went against our personal preferences for communication.
The funny thing about it all is that as much as I think the phone calls and visits have benefited her, they have truly given me the chance to get to know this woman who was there for me when I was growing up. To still have her in my life and be in a positon to say thank you for all the times she spoiled and supported me as a child and young adult is truly a luxury.
“… we need to keep an eye on the social connections of older people, since maintaining social contacts among seniors and reducing isolation may be particularly important for their future survival,” Steptoe concluded from his social isolation study. (Wouldn’t it be an interesting study to investigate the elderly’s positive impact on those a bit more immature!)
My grandmother may have great genes, longevity even, but without the drop ins’ from family and friends, would social isolation have won out and shortened her life? It’s hard to know, but I’d like to think that social connections have made a difference in her life.
What I am sure of is that we owe it to our elderly to keep them from feeling isolated in this life. So, whether they are able to be in their own homes or are living out their days in a nursing home, whether they know you and can converse with you, and whether you choose to call, text, or visit – making the effort to connect truly matters.
It’s not just about a ‘study’ – it’s about reality. Social contact is not only important, it’s life sustaining for all involved!