What Old People Can Teach Millennials About Social Isolation

image - Shutterstock / Mikael Damkier
image – Shutterstock / Mikael Damkier

My love for old people began at church. I can easily recall running around the senior luncheon at my church as a toddler. I loved it so much so that, in Elementary School, I begged my mother to take me out of school so I could hang out with ‘my people’ on my birthday. Even as a child, I loved the idea that just my presence could light up even the most somber of old people. They would smile and laugh as they asked me my name and how old I was. Little, shy me would hold up fingers and repeat my name multiple times until they realized I was indeed named “Shannon” and not “Sharon”.

I still face the Shannon vs. Sharon struggle, but I also still see the way I can light up an old persons day with just simple conversation and genuine interest. So many times after finishing a conversation with them, they thank me. Thank me. And each time my heart still shudders with slight disbelief over the fact that a conversation is something they feel the need to thank me for. Even my own grandmother thanks me before I hang up the phone, and I don’t know whether to cry or smile. Now, I’m not sharing this little tidbit to say “shame on you young people and go talk to the next old person you see on the street or you’ll be damned to hell.” Far from that. I truly enjoy talking to old people, absorbing their stories, and receiving profound advice that my young mind can hardly grasp yet. It’s something that makes me happy. If that is not your cup of tea, don’t drink it. But I do believe there is a lot we can learn from this genuine appreciation and gratitude for simple social interaction.

At our age and in our generational group, daily conversation and social interactions may be things we take for granted. We been have growing up alongside instant messenger, email, cell phones, social networking sites, and now smartphones that combine it all and keep us connected 24/7 all around the world. We think we are connected and oh so social. But are we really interacting in a healthy, human way?

A recent study has shown that they amount of time you spend on social networking sites is inversely related to the happiness you feel throughout that day. The things that were once created to connect us may really be adding to the already growing disease of ‘loneliness’ in our society. And it is growing. In a recent survey, 40% of adults said they were lonely, compared to 20% in the 1980s.

In nursing talk, we have a diagnosis titled “risk for social isolation.” And this isn’t a risk that should be taken lightly. Loneliness has been found in studies to be a serious health risk, comparable to that of smoking cigarettes1. And genuine friendships in older people have been found to increase resilience after being faced with adversity. We are actually stronger when we have people we can count on by our side.

Now, that little girl running around church many years ago had no idea about the world she would grow up in. The internet, social media, cell phones…. those were only ideas in the making. I had no idea that by becoming more connected, we would begin to lose that genuine appreciation and gratitude for simple social interactions.

We have thought for a long time that social isolation was a problem most common in the elderly; some nursing books even have it categorized in the geriatric section of the textbook. But it’s not. It’s a problem that has worked it’s way into all age groups. We take the time to lose weight, quit smoking, take our vitamins, and eat right to prolong our lives, but what should we do to better our social interactions? The elderly might actually know more about avoiding the burdens of social isolation than we do…

It all goes back to where I first started interacting with old people: senior luncheons. They make the effort to get together and spend time together. My grandma gets together with her friends to play cards multiple times a week; I’m sure many of your grandparents do the same. There are senior community groups and now even senior dating sites. They play bingo together and get together at local restaurants to take advantage of the senior discounts. They get together to go walking at the mall. They make the effort to have genuine social interactions.

And we can also try to learn that genuine gratitude and appreciation before social interaction will be something we will need to start seeking out more and more as we age. We can start to be more grateful for the family and friends we have that we can count on.

Loneliness and social isolation may be a growing problem for all age groups, but it is something we can overcome simply by being together. TC mark

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