Important Things to Know About Socialization in Aging

Socialization can play a powerful role in health and wellness for seniors. Learn how companionship and socialization can help mitigate ailments and reduce reliance on pharmaceuticals.
seniors socializing

When talking about health, people often default to physical considerations, bringing up topics such as diet, exercise and regular checkups with medical providers. While these things are important for ongoing health in people of all ages, so is socialization. Studies have shown that regular socialization has been tied to positive benefits for mental and physical health. 

The benefits of socialization are present at every age, but in older adults, social outings and activities can reduce loneliness and isolation while providing positive benefits on cognitive function, emotional well-being and physical factors such as mobility. Anecdotal evidence, statistical analysis and research studies have all shown correlations between socialization in older adults and a positive impact on memory and other brain functions. 

Whether you’re a caregiver, service provider, or an older adult looking forward to future years in retirement, discover what you need to know about socialization below. 

Why Is Social Isolation and Loneliness Harmful to Older Adults?

 Isolation and loneliness can cause a mental health impact to people of any age, but older adults are particularly susceptible due to potential mobility issues, changes in social structures as people move or age, and loss of family and friends. Some of the harmful impacts of long-term isolation or loneliness can include: 
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of clinical dementia
In fact, long-term social isolation has been shown to increase someone’s risk of dementia by up to 64%. If someone already has dementia, a lack of socialization can exacerbate the symptoms, even driving early onset cases forward to become more serious at a faster rate than they might otherwise have. 

Even if you are surrounded by people, you can still be lonely

 Social isolation means having infrequent social contact. But you can have social contacts and still feel lonely.  To assess loneliness, you might ask: 
  • How often do you feel that there are people you can talk to? 
  • How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
  • How often do you feel that your interests and ideas are not shared by those around you? 

5 Benefits of Socialization in Older Adults

 Research confirms that increased interaction and social activity are associated with positive outcomes.  Here are five benefits of socialization in older adults.

1. Reduces Cognitive Decline

 Many people take a use-it-or-lose-it approach to brain functionality, making options such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles a go-to for many older adults. But your brain wasn’t just made to think up vocabulary words or solve number problems; it was made to deal with all of day-to-day life, and that includes conversing, enjoying laughter and simply spending time with others. Research from Rush Medical Center notes that visiting with others and attending social events can be as beneficial as crossword puzzles in keeping your cognitive functions well-oiled. Other studies have confirmed the importance of socialization in older adults’ cognitive capability. The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability — FINGER for short — came up with four practices that were equally important for the aging mind (and body): 
  • Physical activity
  • A healthy diet
  • Challenging yourself mentally
  • Engaging in socialization
Individuals who engaged in these four practices regularly scored higher on cognitive tests of executive function (the ability to consider data and make a decision) and response times. 

2. Potentially Slows Progression of Dementia

 Researchers know that social isolation can worsen the memory deficit someone develops as they deal with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and the opposite of that coin is that socialization in older adults can stop that deficit from growing as quickly. One study pitted the memory functions of rats with Alzheimer’s against each other. The researchers divided the rats into socialized and unsocialized groups for the purpose of the study. The results indicated that the socialized rats had better outcomes over time when it came to retaining memory and learning ability. You don’t have to stick with the rats to find this type of benefit of socialization, though. A study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science noted the benefits of regular conversation on improving memory and other functions, although it did point out that not all socialization is equal. Psychologist Oscar Ybarra notes, “This study shows that simply talking to other people, the way you do when you’re making friends, can provide mental benefits.” In contrast, competitive or argumentative conversations don’t have this impact. 

3. Helps Mitigate the Onset, Severity or Limitations of Disability

 Socialization doesn’t just help with cognitive function, though. It can help ensure older adults remain overall as functional as possible — and for longer. The concept may seem simple: Older adults who have the reason to get out and do more are able to get out and do more, but generally this is the truth. The use-it-or-lose it mentality doesn’t just apply to the brain. And even among older adults who are dealing with some level of disability, socialization can reduce the limitations they set for themselves. Yvonne Michael is an epidemiologist who has studied this phenomenon. In one study, Michael measured the social capital of around 14,000 adults in a region. Social capital was defined as the person’s ability to get help from, communicate with or join in with people in their own neighborhood. The results were that individuals with higher social capital tended to have higher levels of mobility. It’s not only mobility that can be impacted by a person’s level of socialization. In one study that compared older adults who reported feeling isolated to those who didn’t, researchers noted an impact on the ability to perform activities of daily living. Over a six-year period, the ability to bathe, groom and prepare meals for themselves declined more in the group of individuals who reported loneliness than in those who did not. 

4. Improves Quality of Life and Mood

 Isolation and depression are known to be linked, and researchers are now learning that socialization in older adults can actually lead to the opposite effect. In one study, older adults who engaged in regular socialization with staff members of a care facility for nine months reported a higher quality of life as a result. Researchers believe that the socialization efforts reduced agitation in individuals by the same degree that anti-psychotic drugs are known to. 

5. Reduces Reliance on Pharmacological Interventions

 That leads into the fifth benefit of socialization in older adults: a reduced reliance on medication. The study referenced above indicated a specific reduction in the need for anti-psychotic meds, but anytime someone is happier or experiencing better quality of life, they may be relying less overall on pharmacological interventions to help them cope on a daily basis. There’s a reason the old saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.” When you’re spending time with people you enjoy doing activities you enjoy, you get benefits that can include: 
  • Stress relief, which can lead to a reduction in physical symptoms too
  • The release of endorphins and positive hormones that can reduce pain or boost mood
  • The ability to talk about issues and find new ways to address them through lifestyle when possible

What Does Socialization Look Like?

 Socialization for older adults can take many forms.   In the study where older adults reported improved quality of life after nine months of consistent socialization, the activities took place once a week for around an hour. Quality — and consistency — trump quantity here.  In a review of interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness, researchers reported common characteristics of activities that demonstrated a positive impact:
  • Activities need to be adaptable:  It’s important that seniors engage in activities that suit their interests.  Social activities are more effective if they can adapt to the needs of the individual.  

  • Seniors should be involved in choosing and designing the activity: Research has shown that activities are more effective in reducing loneliness when seniors are included in the decision making.  Seniors often find activities organized by others to be patronizing.  

  • Productive activities are better than passive activities:  “Doing” things, as opposed to watching or listening, is more effective at addressing loneliness.  Doing things often involves more action, creativity, and is often directed towards a common goal.  

  • Group activities and one-on-one activities are equally effective:  You don’t need to be around a lot of people to get the benefits of social interaction.  The important thing is to be consistent and do something that you can stick with.  

Suggested activities: 

  • Physical exercise programs have been shown to decrease loneliness in older adults, but the form of exercise can be different depending on the senior.   Some might enjoy gardening, others might enjoy dance, walking clubs or classes.  

  • Volunteering is a productive activity and has the added benefit of positive emotional outcomes as you help others 

  • Memoir writing provides a purpose and allows you to rediscover memories and share them with others

  • Group activities such as local library or church programs, which often include free or low-cost dinners, outings and education workshops 

  • Adult day programs are a great option for older adults with memory loss.  Look for programs that focus on productive activities and that engage seniors in choosing and designing the activities. 

  • Game nights can offer mental stimulation and help build a social network, whether you organize one in your own home, join in at an assisted living community or take part in a community event

  • Outings with a companion can mean mental stimulation and social stimulation if you can find something that engages you.  Going to a history museum with someone, walking around a lake, finding old spots that you love – any of these options can help reduce feelings of loneliness.  

Often, older adults find themselves at a loss for socialization opportunities because they rely solely on family members to offer this support — especially when older adults themselves don’t drive anymore. But you don’t have to keep it in the family. In fact, socialization in older adults is so important that it’s critical to reach out to other resources that can support it. Look for resources like adult day centers, senior centers, or other community and church programs to help offer guidance.  And remember that socialization in older adults doesn’t always mean spending time with people your own age. You can also have rewarding intergenerational relationships with grandkids and younger adults in your family.