Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Investing in Social Capitol

Another great day to donate! Two marathons and two charities! Let's raise a combined $6,500 for cancer research through Fred's Team and low-income seniors with Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.)!

Donate to H.O.M.E. here. Donate to Fred's Team here. More information here and at the top of the blog!

 Originally published June 4th 2015
Where the elderly are not honored, there is no future for the young. – Pope Francis
I was slicing mouse brains to ridiculously thin sheets. I do this often. While slicing I listen to music or books on tape through my phone. This week my phone beeped. It is always startling when the deafening ring tone comes through the earphones. I had a snapchap from my brother.

I think people take far too many pictures. If you go to a vista everyone around you will look through their camera. If you go to a concert everyone watches through the tiny screen of their phone as they tape every moment. If you go to dinner with some very addicted individuals they document every course. So many pictures! I believe we actually miss out on the experience of life because we are so ridiculously trying to preserve it.

That said, I saw this snapchat and wanted to save it. My brother was beaming in his cap and gown – achieving a hard won goal. I tried to move fast before it would fade forever. But my finger slipped. I dropped the phone. I finally managed to push both the volume and power button at the same exact time to capture a screenshot, but only after using my one review of the day and accidentally turning up the volume all the way. My saved screenshot delightfully includes the volume bar covering my brother's smiling face. So much for trying to save a fleeting moment, so much for even enjoying it while it was happening. I did succeed in getting more mouse brain on my phone. Success.

This short episode made me think more and more about our disposable culture. In the above quote Pope Francis was speaking of how our disposable culture affects more than the clothes we buy and the pictures we take and immediately forget. Francis argued that we forget people too. This is a reality for many people but especially for seniors.

A quick survey of the primary literature suggests that our disposable culture is doing terrible things. I searched for articles that included the key words, “senior” and “loneliness.” It is rather bleak. Did you know that feelings of loneliness are correlated with poor cardiovascular health? But that’s not all. If seniors report high levels of loneliness they are more likely to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Loneliness is also linked to higher blood pressure, worse sleep, immune stress and worse cognitive function over time. You also have an increased risk of mortality. So I guess given all that, it makes since that loneliness is a risk factor for depression too.

Loneliness is toxic. What can we do for seniors who experience loneliness? And as we are trying to be good scientists about this we should also ask, “What is loneliness, exactly?” After all, before you fix something you need to know what needs to be fixed. With loneliness I suspect the general Google definition is a good starting place: “sadness because one has no friends or company.” But I think it misses something important. We can be lonely in the midst of plenty of company. In the literature, at least one study named two “social deficits” that contribute to loneliness, limited emotional support and limited companionship. This seems to be closer to the truth. Emotional support can come from more places than just friends. And companionship isn’t just being the presence of “company.” These are basic human needs. These two deficits suggest we as a culture are disposing of our elders. We are denying them the connections that shape us as individuals, that help give us identities, help us live full lives. We are depleting their social capitol.

So then, what can we do? Here science can help us too! Many people have been trying various methods to relieve the loneliness of our seniors. Some methods and practices give better results than others. One study (a study of studies) reviewed a score of different tests from 1970 to 2002. This meta analysis showed something interesting. Nine of the 10 effective interventions at lowering levels of reported loneliness were group activities, some including educational aspects. Much less successful were one-on-one activities like home visits. The authors carefully argued that the jury was still out on the overall effectiveness of home visits and the like, but argued that the data clearly showed group activities were one way to positively improve senior's well-being.

*I don't know how to learn how to juggle.
It made me think about the study I stumbled across early where they were teaching seniors how to do three-ball cascade juggling. In this study the researchers were not interested in loneliness. They wanted to see if the brain was as plastic in elder individuals as it is in young people. They taught both groups how to juggle and then measured brain gray matter volume changes. The elder brain showed gray matter changes after learning to juggle, just like in the 20-year-old control individuals. I wonder if those juggling elders felt less loneliness when they were being taught such a funny skill. I hope so.

It also makes me think about H.O.M.E and some of the many services they provide. First I wonder if their shopping bus does more than just provide seniors with a chance to purchase their groceries. I wonder if the group nature of the service is actually providing a regular opportunity to be surrounded in companionship. I’m not sure. But I do know that H.O.M.E.’s intergenerational housing program does just that. This isn’t some once-a-month visit from a stranger that only reminds you how lonely you are when they quickly leave. This is a full home experience that creates an immersive level of support and companionship. This builds social capitol. 

You may not be a senior today and these issues may seem distant, but as the pope suggests, our disposing of elders hurts more than just them. They are our connection to the past, but they are also our future. H.O.M.E.’s senior community housing is changing lives. Will you join with them in investing in the social capitol of our seniors? You can make a huge difference today!


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