A little help from YOUR FRIENDS
Social connections have myriad benefits
Friends sitting around a table, talking and laughing. A touch on the arm as one leans over to confide. A round of hugs before walking out the door.
For years, Carole Leskin, 78, enjoyed this kind of camaraderie with five women in Moorestown, N.J.
Leskin was different from the other women — unmarried, living alone, years younger — but they welcomed her. Although she met people easily, Leskin had always been something of a loner and her involvement with this group was something new.
Then, just before the pandemic, it was over. Within two years, Marlene died of cancer. Lena had a fatal heart attack. Elaine succumbed to injuries after a car accident. Margie died of sepsis after an infection. Ruth died after an illness.
Leskin was on her own again, just pandemic restrictions went into effect. “The loss, the isolation; it was horrible,” she says.
If, as research has found, good relationships are essential to health and well-being in later life, what happens when old connections end?
There's no substitute for people who understand you deeply, but opportunities to create bonds exist. “It's never too late to develop meaningful relationships,” said Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
That study, now in its 85th year, has shown that people with strong connections to family, friends and their communities are “happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected,” according to The Good Life: Lessons From the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, a new book describing its findings, co-written by Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the Harvard study's associate director.
Waldinger says relationships aren't only about emotional closeness. They're also a source of social support, practical help, valuable information and engagement with the world around us.
Say you enjoy the banter at the gym. “That can be nourishing and stimulating,” Waldinger said. Or, say, a neighbour offers to give you rides to the doctor. “Maybe you don't know each other well or confide in each other, but that person is providing practical help you really need,” he said.
Even casual contacts like a supermarket cashier “can give us a significant hit of well-being,” Waldinger said.
After losing her group of friends, Leskin suffered several health setbacks that left her unable to leave the house most of the time. About 4.2 million people 70 and older are similarly “homebound” — a figure that has risen dramatically in recent years, according to a study released in 2021.
Determined to escape what she called “solitary confinement,” Leskin started a blog about aging and reaching out to readers who contacted her. She joined a virtual travel site and found five people who've become treasured friends.
“Between (Facebook) Messenger and email, we write like old-fashioned pen pals, talking about the places we've visited,” she told me. “It has been lifesaving.”
Still, Leskin can't ask these long-distance friends to come over if she needs help, share a meal with them or enjoy their physical presence. “I miss that terribly,” she said.
Research confirms that virtual connections have benefits as well as drawbacks. On the one hand, older adults who routinely connect with other people via cellphones and computers are less likely to be socially isolated than those who don't, several studies suggest.
Shifting activities such as exercise classes and social hours have helped many remain engaged while staying safe during the pandemic, noted Kasley Killam, executive director of Social Health Labs, which focuses on reducing loneliness and fostering social connections.
But when face-to-face contact diminishes significantly, seniors are more likely to be lonely and depressed, other studies have found.
“If you're in the same physical location as a friend or family member, you don't have to be talking all the time: You can just sit together and feel comfortable. These low-pressure social interactions can mean a lot to older adults, and that can't be replicated in a virtual environment,” said Ashwin Kotwal, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the University of California at San Francisco who has studied the effects of engaging with people virtually.
Meanwhile, millions of seniors — disproportionately those who are low-income, represent racial and ethnic minorities, or are older than 80 — cannot afford computers or broadband access, or aren't comfortable using anything but the phone.
Liz Blunt, 76, of Arlington, Texas, is among them.
She hasn't recovered from her husband's death in 2021. Several years earlier, Blunt's closest friend, Janet, died suddenly, and two other close friends, Vicky and Susan, moved away.
“I have no one,” said Blunt, who doesn't have a cellphone and admitted to being “technologically unsavvy.”
Because she has several serious health issues, Blunt has been cautious about catching COVID-19 and hardly goes out. “I'm not sure where to turn to make friends,” she said in mid-March.
But she hadn't given up. In 2016, she'd started a local group for “elder orphans” (people without spouses or children). Though it sputtered out during the pandemic, Blunt recently emailed her fellow “orphans,” inviting them to lunch.
On March 25, eight women met outside at a restaurant and talked for two-and-a-half hours.
“They want to get together again,” Blunt said later. “Looking in the mirror, I can see the relief in my face. There are people who care about me and are concerned about me. We're all in the same situation of being alone at this stage of life — and we can help each other.”