Remember your first day of kindergarten?
Or the first time you stepped off the bus to camp, surrounded by strangers who seemed to know each other, but were all new to you?
For most of us, such memories are tinged with apprehension, awkwardness and fear of rejection. But we did it anyway. Mostly because, under our parents’ jurisdiction, we didn’t have much choice.
But what if we did have a choice? And what if we weighed the options and decided that we’d rather avoid the awkwardness and apprehension, because we didn’t feel it was worth the possible social benefits?
Fast forward to the position in which seniors often find themselves.
They’ve moved to a new community to be closer to their children. They’ve made aliyah to fulfill a lifelong dream. Or maybe they haven’t moved anywhere – but their social circle has moved away, or passed on.
New social options exist, certainly, but many seniors lack the motivation and the emotional energy required to start from scratch. At this stage in their lives, going through the “first day of…” experience again is not particularly appealing.
So they choose to stay isolated.
Social isolation: a modern issue
Long ago, social isolation among the aging population was uncommon. People lived in large, extended families and were usually part of a community with considerable daily contact among its residents. Someone who lived alone was usually known as a hermit – an unusual, eyebrow-raising anomaly.
But things are changing. In Israel, survey data from 1997-1998 showed that of (Jewish) Israelis over age 65 in the mainstream community (not governmental institutions, kibbutzim or moshavim), 36% of women and 13% of men lived alone. A 2002 survey, however, showed that 20% of (Jewish) Israelis lived in single-person households, as opposed to 10% in 1960. In the U.S., a 2010 survey documented that nearly one third (11.3 million) of older adults lived alone.
Social ties keep you healthy – and alive
Social interaction does more than just produce a warm feeling. Social visits are as helpful as physical activity in helping reduce depression in seniors. Socializing may also help prevent decline in memory and cognitive functioning.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Lack of social connectedness – whether it’s objective isolation or subjective loneliness – increases the risk of illness and death. At least one study shows that loneliness increased the likelihood of death by 26% and social isolation increased it by 29%. Simply living alone (even without the subjective feeling of being lonely) increased likelihood of death by 32%!
Social challenges for seniors
While loneliness and social isolation have detrimental impact on all ages, remaining socially connected can be challenging for seniors.
“With advancing age, it is inevitable that people lose connection with their friendship networks and that they find it more difficult to initiate new friendships and to belong to new networks.” (Industrial Psychiatry Journal)
Seniors who have had the good fortune of living a long life, will also inevitably find themselves living longer than many of their close relatives and friends. And after losing relationships that were built over decades, it can be frightening or overwhelming to start the process of building new relationships all over again.
The stigma of cognitive decline can also be a major deterrent to building relationships. We were once engaged by a woman whose father would go to great lengths not to leave his house. Over the next few months, we understood that his resistance stemmed from his fear of showing confusion – to misspeak and embarrass himself or his wife. Over time, with a great deal of support and understanding, he agreed to try a new social venue, and today is an integral part of the community there.
How you can help
Talk to your parents about the importance of social interaction for their physical, cognitive and emotional health, longevity and quality of life. Offer to help them find opportunities that they will find engaging and stimulating – perhaps long-held or long-lost interests. Or, encourage them to pursue something they have spoken about wanting to do, but never found the time or the opportunity.
If you are able, suggest a multi-generational volunteer opportunity that can be initially done as a family. You may be surprised how quickly your parent connects with other grandparents. Or suggest that a friend or relative accompany your parent on his or her first visit to a new venue (consider contacting the coordinator ahead of time and ask him or her to help facilitate socialization.)
Get creative! You may be surprised by the wealth of social opportunities out there. One of our clients from outside of Jerusalem recently moved into the city to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren, leaving behind a vibrant social circle. At a loss as to how to create a new social life, we helped him find activities that fit his interests through which he could meet like-minded people, such as photography classes, (electric) biking and cinema clubs.
Social venues for seniors in Israel
Volunteer opportunities for seniors exist all over Israel. To find an opportunity that fits your parent’s interests, abilities and locale, contact Ruach Tova (an organization that specializes in matching volunteers with volunteering opportunities) or check out Nefesh B’Nefesh’s list of organizations that welcome senior volunteers.
Every community in Israel has a day center program (“Mercaz Yom”) – contact your matnas or municipality (moetzah or iriyah) for details. These programs provide meals, activities and accessible transportation to and from the program. The cost is relatively affordable as is – and if a senior qualifies for Bituach Leumi (chok siyud) hours, he can use them to help cover the cost.
Some of the day centers also offer showers (with aides to help), beauticians, podiatrists and other support services.
If a senior has been diagnosed with mental impairment, Melabev offers a wonderful day center program that provides social interaction AND cognitive stimulation.
NBN Senior Events
Nefesh B’Nefesh runs one or two events a month specifically for seniors – usually tours of notable places or museums in the Jerusalem or Tel Aviv area. See here for a list of their upcoming senior events.
The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel has a Seniors Division, which conducts activities, programs and special interest groups for those 55 and older.
Free Concerts at the Jerusalem Theater
Every Monday at 5PM, the Jerusalem Theater provides free chamber music concerts. Tickets are free but must be obtained from the Box Office starting at 4PM. Many seniors attend and socialize during and after the concert.
Ulpanim which specialize in teaching seniors are less intense than the standard, and most of the participants are attending for the social aspect as well as for the Hebrew. In fact, when we talked to some attendees, they admitted happily that they’ve repeated kitah bet three times, not because they don’t “get it” but rather because the class really just fulfills a social purpose for them.
Private classes or lessons (chugim)
Almost anywhere you can find individuals teaching group classes in yoga, tai-chi, painting, sewing… you name it! Classes are usually advertised in local advertising newsletters or on community email lists.
Attending services on Shabbat and holidays enables one to connect with the other synagogue attendees and integrate into a community. Many synagogues also have programming during the week.
If your parent is in Jerusalem, the OU (Orthodox Union) Center in the center of town provides numerous Torah classes, activities and trips for English-speakers.