If there is one thing the development of technology and, particularly, the internet has shown us, it is the importance of social connection in our lives.
Most of us are, by nature, constantly engaged in the process of developing and extending relationships with our family, our friends and our co-workers.
It is not uncommon to hear that shortly after retirement or perhaps shortly after the death of a spouse, some people become ill.
Medical practitioners will readily acknowledge the connection between social interaction, mental health and the strength of the immune system.
People with an active network of social contacts and close family relationships simply live longer, healthier and happier.
The maintenance of strong social networks is extremely important, but a challenge for the elderly. Their own family members are often heavily engaged in their work lives and in the energies of raising their children.
Once retired, the network and stimulation of co-workers and clients diminishes. And perhaps worst of all, they begin to experience the constant loss of their own network of friends.
Generally inclined to avoid being a “burden” to others, the elderly often fade into day after day of loneliness, the droning of a television their only constant connection to the outside world.
Naturally, there are many exceptions to that rule. Those who have always sought social connectedness, the more outgoing types, find new ways to connect with others as their families and co-workers drift from their daily interactions.
They join social groups, enjoy the social opportunities in homes for the elderly and simply make new friends with whom they can interact regularly.
Still, those who need social support, but are more introverted may find it difficult to develop new relationships. They need encouragement to try new activities and a greater level of communication with those who mean the most to them.
Regular phone calls from children, grandchildren or friends and relatives from afar ensure that the lonely periods are short and really just an interlude between connections.
Knowing that calls are coming makes the quiet periods both shorter and more bearable.
For the past two years my father has been, for all intents and purposes, housebound by illness. Yet between 7 and 8:30 p.m., the phone hardly ever stops ringing on a nightly basis. He has a small network of friends who constantly call or drop in after dinner, hears from me or my sister every night we’re not with him, and gets calls from his grandchildren two to three times a week.
Although his days are spent coping with complete exhaustion, his animation and energy is significantly different at that time and there is only one explanation for that – he is buoyed by the company and the awareness that others are thinking of him.
We should never underestimate the power of social connection to bring relief to both illness and loneliness, the two most difficult aspects of aging.
Graham Hookey writes about education and parenting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.