As Dr. Robert N. Butler points out in Chapter 5 of his book, The Longevity Prescription, many studies from a variety of disciplines over many years prove again and again that strong social relationships lead to good health. And in reverse,
[T]he link between isolation and suicide was firmly established long ago, suggesting that at the most elemental level, other people give us reason to live.”
The spectrum of human social needs stretches from hermit or anchorite to the gadfly who can't be alone (I've known a few; they exhaust me).
Here, however, Dr. Butler is addressing the majority of us who fall somewhere between those extremes and in old age, when we no longer have the daily social interaction of the workplace, when old friends die or move far away, and we sometimes become less physically able to get around easily, there can be a demonstrable threat to our health if we allow ourselves to become isolated.
Dr. Butler had already discussed the importance of nurturing close personal ties in an earlier chapter. This one discusses those that are more distant but equally important, and it is a Chinese menu of good advice and ideas on how to connect with others in retirement.
From ordinary people to Maggie Kuhn who created the Gray Panthers to the actor Kirk Douglas, there are real-life, inspiring stories about elders who found ways, when paid employment was no longer an option, to remain engaged and productive.
You religious congregation is one sort of community. You might use your professional experience and skills to mentor younger workers. There are dozens of affiity groups to become engaged with: clubs for specific activities, reading groups, yoga classes, adult education, volunteering and other charity work, tutoring children, political organizations, starting a small business, many ways to make a difference in other people's lives and – well you get the idea.
Importantly, however, Dr. Butler gives equal standing to the purely social with John's story. As he has for more than ten years every weekday morning, John stops for coffee at the the same shop in his town with ten or so other regulars.
”The conversation generally isn't especially profound,” writes Butler, “covering the weather, the fortunes of the baseball Giants, local politics, the day's headlines, and health issues.
"But this network of people, none of whom are best friends, providdes these men and women with an everyday sense of contact with a world beyond the walls of their homes.”
For some elders, that is all that is needed or desired of outside contact. There is no requirement to be doing all the time and you can't flunk retirement.
Dr. Butler gives over a couple of pages in this chapter to cyberspace where, he says, “nourishing contact can be made.” That gives me an opportunity to plug elderblogging – writing or reading and commenting – as a important part of one's personal social community.
For me, having left the workplace five years ago and having changed cities twice since then, I would be bereft without my online friends. That wasn't my goal or even a glimmer in the back of mind when I started Time Goes By, but – surprise! - now, well more than half the people I hold most dear I have come to know due to this blog.
I have met maybe two dozen in person and every time, we fell into conversation and camaraderie as easily as if we were old friends who hadn't seen one another in awhile – and in sense that is so since we keep in regular touch online.
Alone does not necessarily mean lonely and the degree to which we need others varies widely. But I do not doubt Dr. Butler's prescription in this chapter:
“Having caring people around you – or even just making meaningful contact witih them by phone, via the internet or by other means – amount to a special kind of health insurance.”
Next week, Chapter 6: Live the Active Life.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: The Wedding Gown