By Ron Mori
During this holiday season, our thoughts turn to those living alone, particularly our elders. This represents the best of us, of course. But we also have to realize that living alone and feeling lonely and socially isolated do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Many who live alone have remained connected with their communities and friends and are quite happy.
But then, too, there are many who live with others — even with family members — who nevertheless have become lonely and socially isolated. Often when they need support the most — someone to listen to and understand their troubles — they find themselves going it alone. Please don’t forget them.
Regardless of our living arrangements, staying connected to the people and things that matter to us is fundamental to physical and mental well-being. We need social connections to thrive — no matter our age.
But a number of factors may contribute to elders becoming disconnected from typical sources of pleasure and support such as their grandchildren, best friends, favorite restaurants, recreational activities they used to enjoy and more. These factors include reduced mobility, hearing or vision loss, lack of access to affordable transportation, death of a spouse and family relocations.
Research to date indicates that loneliness and isolation in older adults can lead to dramatic decreases in physical health, mental well-being and overall quality of life. In fact, one study described the health risks of prolonged social isolation as being equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In other words, the risk of death can be increased by anywhere from 26 percent-45 percent.
AARP Foundation has launched a major new effort called “Connect2Affect” to find and develop innovative ways to address social isolation. “Connect2Affect” features tools and resources to help evaluate isolation risk, reach out to those who may be feeling lonely and disengaged and find practical ways to help them reconnect to the community and build the social connections they need to thrive. See our website (www.AARPFoundation.org/) for details.
A surprising development has been how rapidly electronic gaming has been evolving as a medium that encourages social connection. Games are not a replacement for face-to-face connection, of course, but online gaming has become very popular with the 50-plus population. Nearly 40 percent play at least once a month.
AARP’s “Games” page (www.AARP.org/games/) is one of the most popular sections on AARP’s website, with more than 1.1 million unique visitors per month. AARP will be working to evolve its gaming offerings both to promote a richer experience for the player and establish electronic gaming as a premier medium for helping to reduce social isolation.
As we all take time to be with family over the holidays, let’s all take a moment to reach out to someone you haven’t connected with in a while or know is alone or had a difficult year. It’s amazing how much has changed and yet how important the simple, kind interaction of a few words and an open ear can impact someone positively.
Ron Mori is a board member for the Washington, D.C., JACL chapter and manager of community, states and national affairs.