Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Oliver Moore couldn’t decide between code breaking during the Civil War, the music of 20th century French composers or instruction on transforming his own ideas into poetry. He weighed his options while perusing the class listings at centers at two local colleges, and finally decided in favor of pursuing his literary predilections and chose a poetry class at The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University.
“I spent 40 years practicing law, and when I stopped working, suddenly there was this void that my work and my colleagues used to fill,” said Moore, a 72-year old who lives in Fairfax. “My daughter reminded me that I’d always had all these ideas of things I thought were interesting and wanted to learn about but never had time. I enjoy the cultural and social activities and meeting people whose backgrounds and interests are similar to mine.”
A recent study by the American Academy of Neurology confirms Moore’s observations. Researchers found that staying socially active and engaged reduced the risk of dementia, depression and other mental and physical illnesses among seniors. Moore’s quest to fill his days with engagements that mirrored the energy and mental rigor of those offered by his law career could actually boost his brain health, according to a report by the National Institute of Mental Health, which found cognitive decline was 70 percent lower in seniors who maintained social connections.
However, due to factors like retirement, physical limitations, and the death of a spouse or close friends, staying connected is fraught with complications.
“For working adults, the place of employment provides an outlet for social interaction. Those in retirement have to be intentional in building and maintaining social networks,” said Natasha Sacks, a mental health therapist and, Program Director for Lifelong Learning Institute, at Montgomery College. “The research shows that social interactions are invaluable for emotional well-being, brain plasticity, and support in crisis or everyday living.”
“Opportunities for social interactions are especially important to seniors, who are at risk of becoming isolated as they age,” said Sue Fitzgerald, Ph.D, a geriatrics counselor in Arlington. “It takes extra effort to stay connected, but doing so is so very critical. It’s easy to get depressed and fall into a downward spiral of loneliness and isolation. Sometimes you have to be creative in finding opportunities to engage with others, and it might even feel contrived at first, but the benefits are well worth the effort.”
Like Moore, one of the ways that seniors stay active and socially connected is through educational institutes established for older adult like OLLI and the Lifelong Learning Institute, Montgomery College.
“I enjoy learning just for the sake of learning and exploring something new,” said Alma White, a retired nurse who lives in Bethesda and has taken classes with the Lifelong Learning Institute, Montgomery College.
VOLUNTEER WORK offers a chance for social engagement that also offers one a sense of purpose, says Carmen LaGrange, LCSW, a therapist who works almost exclusively with older patients. “Having a feeling that you’re contributing to something greater than yourself can help people feel like their life has meaning and that they’re here for a reason,” she said. “Helping other people is a great way to create a sense of purpose and develop gratitude and fend off self-pity and depression.”
LaGrange recommends Senior Corps, a government organization that matches seniors with organizations in need of volunteers.
“Many of our students serve on committees and volunteer to give back to the community and in the process build meaningful social connections,” added Saks.
Spirituality can also offer a source of companionship while simultaneously boosting one’s well being, advises Fitzgerald. “A sense of community is a central to most faith groups,” she said. “Relationships are found, made and strengthened through activities like a choir, religious study or prayer groups, where people can spend time with others who are like minded and share some of their beliefs.”
For those who had a strong identity attached to work and enjoyed the resulting social connections that it brought, they might consider part-time work.
“Some people have a hard time dealing with a lack of structure and a place to go everyday where others are depending on them,” said LaGrange. “In those cases seniors might consider a part-time job that doesn’t have the commitment of full-time, high-pressure employment, but does come with mental stimulation, a social benefit of colleagues and other counting on you to be at a certain place at a certain time.”
“For those still in the workforce, I would say be methodical about maintaining and growing social connections so that it will come more naturally when you retire,” Fitzgerald said.