Everyone is now hearing about Baby Boomers and their impact on health care, finances – even product development. Women over 50 are often managing their parents’ lives as well. One aspect that has received comparatively little fanfare: social connection, or the lack of it.
Our degree of social connectedness could determine how long we live – as well as the incidence and severity of health problems. Studies tell us that socially isolated individuals are at greater risk for an array of serious ailments ranging from depression to heart disease. A Harvard University report revealed how the odds of mental decline doubled for seniors with no social ties compared to those who had frequent contacts.
The evidence continues to mount that social connection provides enormous benefits. Researchers find that individuals with a rich social network live at least 1.6 years longer than their peers. Malcolm Gladwell even illustrated in his book Outliers that rich communal ties and connections can have a more profound effect on human health than good nutrition, premium medical care, or exercise.
Relationships are even more important for life satisfaction as we get older. According to Laura Carstensen, founding director at the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of A Long Bright Future, we place a higher value on emotional satisfaction and seek to maximize positive emotional experiences as we age.
The challenge is how to maintain and create tight emotionally satisfying social connections with friends and family. Oftentimes, the desire to age in place by remaining in one’s home, results in geographic separation from adult children and other relatives. However, only 35% of American adults age 76 and older use the Internet or email with even fewer using a smartphone. This generational connection issue is recognized, not just by individual families, but also by communities and the private sector. Even the tech industry is getting involved.
Lively’s (www.mylively.com) was created to increase the quality of care and connection between older adults and loved ones. Lively makes stylish activity sensors that measure daily activity levels around the house while giving family members insight when help may be needed. They’re attached to everyday household items, such as the refrigerator, pill boxes, or one’s TV remote control, to help answer some of the persistent nagging questions that worry loved ones: Are you eating regularly? Getting out of the house? Taking medication on time? Notifications can be sent by email or text message when activity behavior differs from normal, enabling family members to gain insight of small changes that may hint at bigger problems that can be prevented.
The real genius behind the product is that users don’t need to have Internet access to connect with Lively. It helps the connection problem with LivelyGram: a twice monthly mailer of messages and photos from loved ones submitted from Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. The activity sharing, and the sense of connection and well-being goes both ways.
Storyworth (www.storyworth.com) is another company trying to strengthen inter-generational family connections. The service sends questions to elder loved ones via phone or email that curates their answers to gather family history, provide new conversation starters, and deepen relationships.
Additionally, the Village to Village Network (www.vtvnetwork.org) is a grassroots organization that connects volunteers with older adults to provide help and support. This can include help with getting chores done, transportation services, and socializing. Village to Village builds a sense of community by facilitating face to face interaction between generations without older adults to have Internet access.
It’s comforting to know that companies and communities are stepping up to the challenge of keeping us more emotionally and socially connected. Our interdependence is essential to a lifetime of health and happiness.