You may wonder about the focus on the need for social connections as one grows older, in this book. After all, isn’t friendship usually associated with youth? Education management expert Ravi Acharya would say no to that. After spending his working years in Pune and Ahmedabad, among other places, Acharya moved to Bengaluru. He is lucky to have two of his closest friends live on the same street. Acharya says we don’t realise the importance of actually talking to our friends, in a world dominated by conversations on WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media. “We friends make it a point to meet once a month,” says Acharya, “and avoid conversations over WhatsApp unless necessary. Such social connections and making an effort toward being in touch is important for active ageing.”
When we ask Chandrika Desai how she stays connected to people, she has a hearty laugh. “It’s my personality,” she says. Desai is a jovial 74-year-old who epitomises how important social engagement could be. But like she tells us, passively becoming part of a group is not the only way to do it. You need to be active at your end, too. Every morning, Desai sits with a list. She has a large network of family and friends, and each morning she calls different people. “I make an effort to reach out,” says Desai who lives on her own, leads her own life but is deeply connected to her two children who live overseas.
Desai is also part of a group of cousins and friends who meet for lunch every Sunday and have been doing so for years. There is no dearth of friendships and connections in her life but like Acharya, Desai says it is important to maintain that village of friends as one grows older. “I open up to my friends if there is a need and they also reach out to me. I believe it is important.”
The associations and regular communication help Desai not just find a tribe around her but also a give-and-take-of-support that keeps her life secure and enriched within the circle of friends around her.
“While old friendships are important, it’s very exciting to have new friendships too, especially when you connect over shared interests,” says Arni.
She is currently enjoying gardening, among other things, with a group of friends. “I never could grow one single plant and now gardening has become a great interest. This constant information exchange, sharing and experimenting is a wonderful way
to stay engaged.”
In his book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes about a programme called Eden Alternative in Chase
Memorial Nursing Home, USA. Geriatrician Bill Thomas took over the nursing home and realised what plagued the residents more than their ailments were boredom, loneliness, and helplessness. So, he introduced a pioneering idea and brought in animals, plants, and children into the mix. The place doubled as a day-care centre for children of the staff and introduced art workshops, and many residents took on the responsibility of caring for the pets and plants! It created a caring, inclusive, and vibrant community that improved well-being and is now a model applied both to eldercare communities and for seniors who wish to age in place, that is continue to live in their homes.
This unusual experiment shows what wellness experts have been saying all along – a sense of purpose, which the seniors at the nursing home got from being part of pet care and gardening. An inclusive, vibrant community, and connections that can enhance social engagement and improve well-being. There is no denying the life-altering impact of meaningful connections.
It’s what US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explores in Together: The Healing Power of Human Connections. Murthy writes how medicine often misses out on this aspect, given that “social issues, as wrenching as they were, seemed outside the domain of doctoring.” He mentions Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s study on the power of social relationships.
While pursuing a PhD in Health and Social Psychology. Holt-Lunstad tried to find the answer to the question, do social relationships reduce our risk of dying early? Her study published in July 2010 showed that people with strong social relationships are 50 per cent less likely to die prematurely than people with weak social relationships. The impact of poor social connection on reducing lifespan is equal to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and a risk that’s greater than the risk of obesity, excess alcohol, and lack of exercise.
Did that data make you go wide-eyed and pick up the phone to call an old friend? Or convince your mother to stop making the TV her best friend and step out to meet her neighbourhood buddies? Our families are nuclear now, especially in urban areas. Many older adults like Col Tavamani have no one to turn to or converse with when the children are at work or live elsewhere. Some elders may have fewer social connections than earlier. As people retire, they lose friendships and relationships to illness and death. Daily social contacts and stimulations lessen, often impacting their physical and
mental health. Other reasons for loneliness include little or no interaction with family members, neighbours or the community at large. The pandemic may have brought that loneliness into sharper focus but it has always been there in our society.
If you have an older loved one, think about what we ask them the most? We enquire about their health – we ask them if their blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol are under control. If they have aching knees and a bad back. We seldom ask if they are in touch with their network of friends or who they would have chatted with on that day. If you are an offspring reading this, chances are that you never imagined that lack of social connections could hurt your parents more than a physical ailment could. But books like Dr Murthy’s and research have shown us that it does. In the introduction to this book, we mentioned a survey in 2018 called Jug Jug Jiyenge that focused on elders and their children who live away from them.
The 1,000 senior citizens across urban India surveyed said physical health was a major concern for only 10 per cent of them, 36.4 per cent worried about maintaining their social lives.
Their children felt the opposite!
Excerpted with permission from Rethink Ageing: Lessons In Ageing From the Bolder and Older Generation, Nidhi Chawla and Reshmi Chakraborty, Penguin.