Social contact is an important aspect of life. We human beings are social creatures with an emotional need for relationships and positive connections to others. We’re not meant to survive, let alone thrive, in isolation.
Social connections not only give us pleasure, they also influence our wellbeing. Meaningful and lasting social connections can serve as a buffer against stress and promote our physical and mental health as we age. People who have satisfying relationships have been shown to be happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. In contrast, there is evidence that being socially isolated is associated with depression and could lead to the development of serious illness or a reduced life span.
Although staying socially active and maintaining our relationships are both an important part of healthy aging, it can be challenging to do so, especially during the winter season (the four seasons in Vermont being, of course, “Winter, Still Winter, Almost Winter and Road Construction,” as the saying goes).
Try these tips for staying socially connected and intellectually stimulated during the winter season:
- Set a routine. Keep up with regularly scheduled appointments as much as possible. If getting together with friends or family happened sporadically before, make an effort to be more consistent about getting together now. It’s okay to say no to an invitation for coffee or an offer to drive you to the store once in a while, but don’t make it a habit.
- Keep up with hearing and vision tests. People with an undiagnosed hearing or vision problems often avoid social situations out of embarrassment and difficulty with communicating. Have any problems treated as soon as you can to remove this barrier to connecting with others.
- Share a meal. Dine with others whenever possible, whether with a church group, at the local senior center or at a café. Even going to a diner on your own for a cup of coffee can be social. Just sit at the counter and chat with your server, or simply watch all the coming and goings.
- Develop a hobby. Besides providing a sense of purpose, many hobbies and interests are social in nature. Anything that involves a group, like playing bridge, can be socially healthy. Check out your local senior center, town recreation program, library or church for educational classes, one day seminars and activities.
- Volunteer. Doing something that helps others has a positive effect on how you feel about yourself. The meaning and purpose you find in helping others will enrich and expand your life. Schools, churches, nonprofits and charitable organizations all depend on volunteers for their survival. Click here for a link to the United Way’s RSVP program and check out local volunteer opportunities.
- Ask for help. When we ask for help, we give someone a chance to feel valued and useful as well as keep ourselves engaged. Worried about getting up the stairs to that restaurant? Don’t stay home. A lady I know asked the young staff person at her neighborhood deli to hold the door and take her cane as she climbed in for a cup of soup. Now this staff person watches out for her on her weekly visits and chats with her while she eats.
- Offer to help someone else. Offer to pick up a few things at the grocery or post letters or pick up a newspaper for a neighbor who needs help. It will make both of you feel good and lead to additional interactions.
There are many simple, affordable ways we can stay engaged during the winter season. Seek out activities that are most likely to bring you joy, and you’ll soon find “Road Construction” season is here before you know it!
Robyn Skiff is a medical home self-management program coordinator at the Community Health Improvement department at the UVM Medical Center.