Your Greatest Strength
By Kereen Lazurko, Recreation Therapist
A growing body of research is confirming a strong link between social connectedness and cognitive health. Social isolation refers to someone that has few social contacts, few social roles (i.e. friend, neighbour, former colleague, etc.) as well as an absence of relationships (Statistics Canada, 2014). There are several risk factors that increase the likelihood of social isolation. These include things such as living alone, being 80 or older, having health concerns, not having contact with family, living in a rural or remote area, and experiencing critical life transitions, to name a few. Therefore, some of those at the highest risk for social isolation are older adults with health issues (including dementia), females, low income seniors and caregivers.
With the combination of an aging population and increased life-expectancy, the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise. Lack of socialization equates to lack of brain stimulation and brain stimulation is crucial for cognitive health. If the lack of socialization leads to loneliness, the detriment multiplies. Research shows individuals who are lonely have double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and generally experience more rapid cognitive decline than individuals who are connected socially. Note though, it is the quality of those connections that has more of an impact on one’s sense of loneliness (and therefore, also cognitive health) rather than the quantity of socialization. This stands true due to the fact that emotional support has been proven to be more protective against cognitive decline than instrumental support (i.e. helping someone with activities of daily living, such as dressing, eating, toileting, etc.). In fact, since instrumental support can reduce one’s independence and sense of self-efficacy, despite being well-intended, this in turn, can actually contribute to cognitive decline.
We strongly encourage our Forever…in motion (FIM) exercise groups to incorporate a socialization component in their classes. Whether this means providing the opportunity for participants to come early and walk around visiting prior to the class, or offering the option of staying after to sit and visit while finishing off their water bottles or over coffee and a snack. This allows the FIM group to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for older adults to establish valuable supportive relationships. These relationships in addition to the enhanced ability to improve or maintain one’s physical independence are the greatest gifts our FIM groups have to offer!
I would like to thank Dr. Rebecca Genoe, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies, University of Regina for sharing her research with me for this article.