The negative effects of social isolation on mental health are clear: studies show that people with regular social engagements live longer than those who don’t participate in social activities. It’s easy to keep a full social calendar when you’re younger: you have energy and physical mobility. But what happens when you get older and your energy levels dip, your mobility decreases and maybe you don’t have easy access to transportation? Unfortunately for most seniors, the answer is that they go out less and less.
Approximately one-third of Americans aged 65 or older live alone, and half of those over 85 do. Often, this is because a spouse has passed, along with siblings and friends, and children have grown and moved away to start their own families. With 15% (nearly 50 million people) of the American population classified as senior citizens by the United States Census Bureau, our country is home to a lot of potentially lonely individuals. Worse, the effects of loneliness on physical and mental health include decreased mental functioning, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite and an increased risk of dementia.
Serving Seniors is committed to decreasing social isolation and preserving the mental health of San Diego’s senior population: their Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center is a bustling hub of activity with social opportunities for everyone, whatever their activity preferences are. Their seniors enjoy regular walking group outings, where they often break into song (yes, really). If they’re interested in something a little less boisterous, seniors can visit the cyber café and get a quick lesson in Skype, check their email or social security accounts, or browse the internet. They also offer regular exercise classes and game opportunities and throw a monthly birthday party.
The social atmosphere promoted by Serving Seniors provides an invaluable support network for seniors, and the staff hear time and again how glad the seniors are to be able to access them. But what happens when someone is reluctant or afraid to participate in social activities? Their dedicated team of support staff steps in to make sure seniors are still able to thrive.
This personal story brings the impact of Serving Seniors programs to life:
Barbara was a senior client with some mental health challenges which made her isolated. Social situations gave her severe anxiety. The Serving Seniors team repeatedly encouraged her to participate in social activities and even offered to attend them with her. But even subdued social situations, like sitting in the TV room for the weekly video vacation, were too stressful for Barbara. She preferred to remain in her apartment, alone. The team began to worry. They brainstormed less conventional ways in which they might be able to help Barbara.
The Director of Supportive Services remembered that Barbara had once mentioned a love of gardening. Since the holiday season was approaching, he purchased a tiny, potted living Christmas tree. He knocked on Barbara’s door and when she answered, asked if she would help him plant the little sprout in the communal garden. She was skeptical, unsure of his motives, and hesitated at first. Eventually his warmth and sincerity convinced her to come out of her lonesome apartment and help him plant the miniature pine tree.
In the garden, surrounded by plants and bathed in sunshine, Barbara herself began to blossom. Her love of nature overcame her social anxiety, slowly making her immune to situations that had previously terrified her. Eventually Barbara was able to participate regularly in social activities, interacting comfortably with other seniors and enjoying their company.
Because the dedicated Serving Seniors team truly listened to her and was willing to apply some patience and unconventional thinking to her circumstances, Barbara was able to prosper in a way that was comfortable for her at a pace that wasn’t overwhelming. Her story is a testament to the power of warmth, kindness and perseverance. Every day after they planted the tiny tree, until the day she passed away, Barbara and the Director went to the garden to water the tree and ensure that it thrived. That pine tree still stands in the community garden at the Potiker Family Senior Residence. It’s nearly thirty feet tall.