Being socially active is a healthy thing. In a presentation to the National Academy of the Sciences, researchers disclosed their findings that social interaction impacts physical and mental health in numerous ways and even affects mortality. If you are close to a loved one who is curtailing social activities for various reasons, here are five good questions you can ask to encourage him or her to re-engage.

  • "Can I take you to (church, synagogue, mosque or other religious place)?"

Religious attendance benefits seniors mentally and physically. If a senior does not feel like going, ask if he or she would like to pray together with you sometimes. Prayer boosts mental and physical health, according to research compiled in Religion, Families, and Health.

  • "Did you join the exercise group you were going to join?"

Exercise has numerous benefits for people of all ages. It also allows seniors to socialize. Exercise raises self-esteem and good feelings about one's body, even if there are no visible effects like weight loss or contouring. Exercise by itself may add the self-confidence some seniors need to socialize. Encourage seniors to get exercise, preferably in groups. It adds to their sense of self-efficacy--that is, being able to act effectively on the circumstances of their lives, say researchers Song, Peng, and Lee in the Journal of Health Communication.

  • "Do you want me to arrange a ride for you to go to that dinner meeting?"

Many seniors no longer drive due to impaired vision, hearing, and slow reflexes. The inability to get around may keep them from social and civic activities they could benefit from. Offering to arrange transportation and doing so can encourage seniors to participate in activities they would otherwise skip.

  • "Can you look after my cat this weekend? She's no trouble, and she'll be lonely while I'm out of town. She's fine with dry food and water. I'll bring a clean litter box for her, too."

Pets are used in therapy and, increasingly, among the elderly. Research shows that pets can reduce or dismiss depression, paint smiles on sad faces, lower heart rates and combat stress. While a senior may or may not want the responsibility of a pet full-time, he or she might be willing to take an animal for a couple of days, especially if it will help a caregiving son or daughter. Look out, though. You may not get your pet back if your senior falls in love with it.

  • "Could you hear the movie dialogue all right?"

Very few of us want to admit that we need aids for the basic functions of life--using a cane or walker to get from room to room, inserting a hearing aid in order to hear conversations, etc. Yes, pride is preserved by not having to admit to needing things such as hearing aids, but we may lose friends and companions because they get tired of having to repeat themselves or shouting to be heard. Not being able to hear well and facing the embarrassment of replying inappropriately because a statement was misunderstood can discourage a senior from social interaction. Monitor your senior's hearing and suggest that he or she get the necessary support for the most important part of social interaction: listening.

Sources

Campbell, E. Y. & Waite, L. J. (2009). Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health Among Older Adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, March 2009, 50(1): 31-48. Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756979/#R32.

Steptoe, Andrew, Shankar, Aparna, Demakakos, Panayotes, & Wardle, Jane. (2009). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 110(15): 5797-5801. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1219686110. Available online at http://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/5797.full.

Ellison, C.G., and Hummer, R. A., eds. . (2010). Religion, Families and Health. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

Song, H., Peng, W., & Lee, K. M. (2011). Promoting Exercise Self-Efficacy With an Exergame. Journal of Health Communication, 16:148-162. DOI: 10.1080/10810730.2010.535107.

Seigel, J. M. (1990). Stressful Life Events and Use of Physician Services Among the Elderly: The Moderating Role of Pet Ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (58)6: 1081-1086.

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