Social connection in life plan communities: the need to innovate
A PERSONAL STORY
I was having lunch with my in-laws several years ago at a Life Plan Community in Virginia when I asked them the following question: What do you like most about living here and what do you like least about living here? They had been living at this particular community for almost seven years, long enough to have formed an opinion. This was an important question for me because I have spent the last 30 years of my professional life serving nonprofit senior living communities. I believe they do good work, and I was extremely curious to hear my in-laws’ response.
Sarah sat there for what seemed like several minutes, looked at her husband and said the following: “What T.C. and I like most about living here are the friends we have made and the sense of community and social connection we have. What we like the least about living here is losing those same friends to death on a routine basis. However, we would have it no other way.” Looking back on that conversation we had in the Westminster Canterbury dining room with its spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I realized the awesome power of Sarah’s statement. My mother in-law had identified two sides of the same coin. More than anything else, the value of that Life Plan Community to my wife’s parents was social connection and a sense of belonging.
A Harvard Study on Aging published in 2016 confirms Sarah’s statement. The study identified social isolation for seniors as one of the most difficult problems our society will face in the coming years. Often misunderstood, loneliness and boredom are the biggest public health crises facing older adults. Social isolation is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It not only affects mood, but suppresses the immune system. In fact, Great Britain has identified social isolation as a national crisis: and as a result, has established a new cabinet position – A Minister of Loneliness.
Anyone who has been following this topic can find plenty of articles and books addressing the importance of this issue. Another Harvard Study, which began in the 1930s and followed over 700 men for almost 80 years, found the No. 1 factor to longevity, health and happiness was being in relationship with others and social connection. The Blue Zone study completed by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner identified “Blue Zones” around the world where people live longer and happier lives. In addition to diet and lifestyle, the study identified being in social circles, being in community and being in relationship with family as key ingredients to living longer and healthier lives. And according to a 2012 study done by the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, seniors who feel lonely are more than 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia.
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