Finding Community as We Age

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by DR. ALLISON BELGER

Finding Community as We Age

I wrote my book about the power of community to document a social phenomenon that is happening around the world facilitated and exemplified by CrossFit gyms.The clear and resounding message is that groups of people coming together can do far more for each other and for themselves than each individual could on his or her own.

Redefining Our Expectations of Aging

In doing research for my book and now subsequent follow-up work, it has become abundantly clear that the topic of how communities, social support, social networking, and social ties can lead to increases in physical health is an extremely hot topic right now. As we in this 40-50-60 age range start thinking of ways to manage our own longevity, we are also faced with aging parents.

The literature is overwhelming in terms of the positive effects of keeping people connected in meaningful ways. These include both intimate, personal, one-on-one relationships as well as larger-scale connectivity to some kind of community or social effort, such as religious groups or those organized around some kind of philanthropic endeavor.

Those engrained in a community are better off
Studies show that aging people with a sense of self-efficacy and confidence that comes with social connectedness are healthier and live longer than those who don’t. Aging parents are healthier and live longer when they are involved meaningfully in the lives of their grown children and still experience their role as parent as having utility.

In 1950, Erik Erikson, a German psychologist and psychoanalyst who had come to America after the rise of the Nazis, published Childhood and Society in which he described eight stages of human development. The final two stages of adulthood are most relevant to my discussion here. The stage of Generativity vs. Stagnation (ages 24-64) was described as a period in which people strive to guide the next generation(s), contribute to society in some meaningful way, and somehow make a lasting impact in the world. This is the time when people try to find and create meaning through their work, relationships, and other activities. It is a time when civic and social responsibility matters and drives behaviors (E.g., mentoring, teaching, connecting with young people through philanthropy, community, etc.) Erikson’s final phase was called Ego Integrity vs. Despair (ages 65-death). During this phase, people reflect on their lives in evaluation of whether or not they were able to make a difference in the next generation and make a meaningful impact through their work, relationships, and other endeavors. If they feel they have not done so, they can experience regret and depression in their later years.

Staying in touch: [W]e need to imagine fulfilling lives in those later years. And that will involve being more socially connected and having social ties and social purpose.
Given the considerable changes in life expectancy and cultural expectations since Erikson wrote his theory, we need to think about how to redefine expectations of ourselves in our 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, even 90’s. We need to acknowledge that those of us age 60 and older can and should still be endeavoring to connect with the younger generation, to make meaningful contributions to the larger community, and can and should still be able to contribute meaningfully through work and relationships. The research is telling us loudly and clearly that encouraging and allowing for meaningful social and community connections will actually make us healthier and live longer, especially in these decades often marked by a decline in such opportunities.

Seeking Purpose and Connection

What will you be like when you're 80?
I recently went to a talk given by Laura Carstensen, PhD. She is a professor of psychology and founder of the Stanford Longevity Center, as well as the author of A Long Bright Future, a book about how to prepare ourselves and our nation for the aging process and what we need to do to address the fact that collectively we are living far longer lives than we were in the past. When asked to give an example of one concrete thing we can do to change our perspective on aging, she asked the audience to try to envision and imagine ourselves in our 80’s. Her point was that many people find it nearly impossible to do that, and when they do they imagine being old, sick, wheelchair bound, etc. Given the statistics that fewer and fewer of us will actually be like that in our 80’s, and hopefully even fewer of US in this group than in the general population, we need to imagine fulfilling lives in those later years. And that will involve being more socially connected and having social ties and social purpose.

Make it count:[S]tudies show that having meaningful social and community connections is more predictive of physical health and longevity than lifestyle habits.
In our efforts to keep our bodies strong and fit, we of course need to focus on our training, our nutrition, our lifestyle choices, our efforts at mobility, all of it. But we need to pay as much attention to ourselves as social beings, and in particular how we are connected to other social entities that are bigger than we are. As Kelly Starrett said when endorsing my book, we need to “create opportunities for people to matter to each other.”

We need to think about, create, foster community ties as we age. Over and over studies show that having meaningful social and community connections is more predictive of physical health and longevity than lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking, etc, and also more predictive even than predispositions to illness. One of my favorite quotations in my book comes from political scientist, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone. After reviewing the vast landscape of literature on the topic, Putnam writes:

The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half (emphasis in original). If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.

For those of us over 40, facing our own aging processes and helping our parents face the next phases of their own, we need to continue to find ways of finding community and creating it for others, throughout the duration of our lives.

Suggestions for Additional Reading

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam
A Long Bright Future by Laura Carstensen
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Mark Hyman’s blog on The Daniel Plan
Articles by Lisa Berkman, Social Epidemiologist who has done numerous research studies on this
topic
Forging Social Connections for Longer Life” by Jane E. Brody

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