Would you like to slow down your rate of physical decline by as much as 62%?
Want to be able to reduce or delay the risk of cognitive decline?
The answer is not some new miracle drug. I’m not even talking about exercising regularly and eating responsibility – although those habits are certainly important and you should do them too.
We all dream of a retirement in which we enjoy a free and easy life for many years. We envision a retirement in which we’ll be active, see and do fun things, and enjoy it all with good friends and family. We acknowledge that we’ll get older and slow down a little, but life will still be good.
But for a surprising number of seniors, their life is not that way at all.
What I’m going to share with you today is a quality decision you can make for yourself that will dramatically improve the quality of your life. It’s a simple behavior change.
It’s as easy as getting out and socializing with other people.
A recent study by the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) revealed several shocking statistics:
- 18% of seniors age 60 and over live alone, while 43% reported feeling lonely on a regular basis. Two-thirds of the adults who said they were lonely live with a spouse or other partner of some kind, which indicates that you shouldn’t rely upon your spouse to be your sole source of companionship.
- Isolated seniors experienced a 59% greater risk of mental and physical decline.
- People 60 years of age and older who are lonely saw a 45% increase in their risk of death.
These statistics are especially troubling when you consider that as more baby boomers reach retirement, we’ll have the largest number of seniors ever. The percentage of seniors who live alone is increasing, because more adults do not have children or have fewer children. Families are more geographically dispersed than ever before. As a result, baby boomers are less likely to have family members to support them in their old age.
LGBT seniors are even less likely to have children, and fewer of them have close ties with their biological families due to stigmatization and disapproval, which intensifies the problem.
While you might not be able to do anything about your biological family situation, you can certainly ensure that you’re getting enough human interaction in your life. You can make a conscious effort to cultivate friendships and a support network. You can design your life to include activities that put you in regular contact with others.
When you retire from work, you leave behind pressure, stress, deadlines, performance reviews, boring meetings, and that jerk down the aisle who spends all day making personal phone calls that everyone can hear. But you also leave behind something that is more important that you may realize: human contact.
You may not consider any of your colleagues to be close personal friends, but just being around people provides a certain level of socialization that you’ll miss once you retire.
Since I have stopped working, I have learned that socialization doesn’t happen as easily as it used to. If I want socialization, I have to actively create it. That’s not hard to do, but it requires willful effort.
It’s easy to get cabin fever if you stay in your house for long periods of time. You may find yourself wanting to go grocery shopping or have lunch in a nearby fast-food joint just to be around other people.
It’s clear that one of the most important elements of a happy and healthy retirement lifestyle is socialization.
I, and many other retirement writers, have written about this many times before. But I recently watched a TED Talk that made me reconsider the impact that isolation may have on seniors and retirees.
The TED Talk is “Everything You Think You Know about Addiction is Wrong.” (There’s a link at the end of this article.) The speaker, Johann Hari, spent three years researching the war on drugs and discovered why our approach to the treatment of addiction so often fails.
The talk is interesting and well-delivered (as most TED talks are), but what does addiction have to do with socialization during retirement? As it turns out, they have a lot more in common than you may think.
According to Mr. Hari, much of our current understanding of addiction comes from a study done early in the 20th century in which rats were put in cages and offered two types of water: plain water and water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rats almost always preferred the drugged water. Soon, they would overdose and die. The researchers concluded that your body would become chemically dependent upon the drugs. That’s why they devised Methadone treatments.
But Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology in Vancouver, conducted a different experiment. Rather than putting rats in empty cages in which they had nothing to do but drink either regular or drugged water, Professor Alexander constructed a cage he called “Rat Park,” which had plenty of cheese, colored balls, tunnels, and most importantly, other rats. These rats were also offered the same choice of water, but none of them took the drugged water. The rats lived happy, connected lives and had no desire for the drugs.
Professor Alexander began to think that addiction isn't about your chemical hooks, but it’s more about your cage. What if addiction is an adaptation to your environment? The rats who suffered alone in solitary confinement in their empty cages opted for the drugs in order to anesthetize them from their boring, empty lives.
Now, I’m not suggesting that lonely retirees are going to become drug addicts. To the best of my knowledge, addiction to illicit drugs is not prevalent among the senior demographic.
But lonely seniors sometimes turn to other escape mechanisms to anesthetize themselves from a life of loneliness and purposelessness.
- Drinking. While many statistics show that alcoholism isn’t more prevalent among seniors than for the population in general, some people do turn to alcohol later in life in response to situations such as bereavement, illness, disability, depression and boredom. It’s also important to note that as we age, our tolerance for alcohol may decrease. Our bodies can’t metabolize and excrete alcohol as efficiently as they once did. Plus, we tend to require more medications, and medications can sometimes have adverse effects when combined with alcohol.
- Gambling. I seldom venture into casinos (and there are eight within driving distance of my home), but when I do I notice something striking: the majority of the people in the casinos are seniors. And even in this environment of flashing lights and artificial gaiety, they don’t look happy at all. They are there for a combination of reasons: it’s something to do to relieve boredom, it gets them out of the house, and it’s sensory stimulation. Sadly, some are probably there with the desperate hope of hitting it big, and therefore stretching their retirement dollars further. Of course, the statistical probability is that they will lose, further draining already limited resources.
- TV watching. An easy avenue for some seniors is simply to plop down on the couch and watch TV all day. Today, online streaming services like Hulu offer many of the TV series from decades past on demand, so it’s easier than ever to relive your past by binge-watching sitcoms from the sixties and seventies. Like most other things in life, that’s okay to a point. Some time spent in front of the TV is entertaining and relaxing. The important thing is to enjoy TV in moderation, and not to let it overshadow your contact with other people.
- The computer. TV watching has a new cousin: the internet. Much has already been written about the changes to society that have taken place as a result of the internet. We can see pictures and read information about faraway lands from our seat in front of the computer screen. We can reconnect with friends from high school and throughout our lives (albeit at a superficial level); yet spend our day without physically encountering another human. We can play computer games of all sorts without engaging in any physical activity whatsoever. We’re becoming a society in which everyone is sitting at home in front of a computer. Even when people venture out, they are heavily focused on their mobile device.
I believe that all of this is rooted in the desire for connection. We are, literally, looking for love in all the wrong places.
I frequently think about how my daily routine has changed since I stopped working. I have a lengthy list of things I want to do: activities I wish to engage in, places I want to go, and goals I want to achieve. Yet, I don’t get nearly as much done most days as I would like.
Part of me says that’s fine – one of the joys of retirement (or renaissance, as I like to call it) is freedom from deadlines and the privilege of doing, or not doing, whatever I want.
But the other part of me wonders if I am under-living my life. I spend a lot of time on the computer, especially on Facebook. At the root of this is a craving for connection.
Recent studies at Duke University, the University of Arizona and Cornell indicate that the number of close friends people say they have has declined rapidly in the last two to three decades. At the same time, the average amount of floor space in United States homes has increased steadily since the 1950s.
Johann Hari touches upon these trends in his TED Talk. We’re trading friends for floor space and connections for possessions. We are building lives in which we surround ourselves with castles that are filled with the latest creature comforts and technological innovations, apparently thinking that these will make us happier – but we’re sharing our cushier lives with fewer and fewer people.
What can you do to ensure that your retirement life will be sufficiently filled with socialization and connection?
Of course, the ideal amount of human involvement is hard to quantify and it’s different for each of us, but I think it’s safe to say that we all need it, and many of us are at risk for not getting enough of it.
As I’ve written previously, socialization is one of the four pillars of a happy and healthy retirement lifestyle. The other three are physical activity, mental stimulation, and personal fulfillment. Fortunately, it’s easy to choose physical activities, mentally stimulating activities, and fulfilling activities that involve meaningful interaction with other people.
Here are just a few ways that you can enjoy connecting and socializing with other people. Most of these offer physical, mental, or fulfillment benefits as well:
- Take classes. Whether it’s an art class, a cooking class, a new language class or anything else, you are bound to meet other people with similar interests.
- Join or organize a club. A book discussion group, an investment club, a restaurant-of-the-week club, a wine-tasting club or anything else you can imagine will bring people with common interests together. Most of these groups will provide mental stimulation as well.
- Volunteer. One of the best ways to find a sense of purpose and happiness is to help others who are less fortunate. Volunteering is also a great way to add more culture into your life; you can become a docent or tour guide at a museum or an usher at a concert hall, for example. If you have business or teaching skills, you can become a mentor.
- Join an activity group – or start one. This could be a hiking group or even a group that walks up and down the halls of shopping malls. There are groups that take day trips to local points of interest. There are exercise groups for yoga, aerobics, water aerobics, and more that are targeted for seniors.
For more ideas, see 100 Things You Can Do After You Retire.
Surely, you want to envision and enjoy a retirement that is healthy, fulfilling, and enjoyable. Yet, loneliness among seniors is a growing problem that detracts from your health and well-being.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s within your control to decide how you’re going to live your golden years. Simply knowing these facts should help you avoid falling into the loneliness trap.
What are you doing to ensure adequate socialization in your life?
Watch “Everything You Think You Know about Addiction is Wrong.” (14:42)
© 2015 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.