Connections improve health for elders and all

Appeared in Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star on August 10, 2014
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

What do Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Icaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica have in common? They boast the world’s healthiest people.

These communities not only produce people who live longer than most of the rest of the world, but also have the lowest rates of chronic diseases and conditions that are commonly on the rise in the rest of the United States, and especially here in the Rio Grande Valley. Are these especially economically prosperous communities? While they all enjoy a certain level of prosperity, they are by no means wealthy communities.

In fact the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and Icaria, Greece have much lower levels of income and wealth than do folks here in our communities. So what is it that keeps them so healthy and allows them to live longer, quality lives? I’ve written about the diet and exercise habits of these “blue zones” as they are called (www.bluezones.com), but what else do these communities have in common? Studies show they have 1) Strong social networks; 2) Reliance on a belief or faith system; 3) They value their elders and put family first.

Numerous studies have shown that having a strong social network is key to preserving health. Yet more and more people are disconnected from others and frankly, lonely. The other day I gave a ride to an elderly woman who chatted away with me in the car.

Recently widowed, she had moved here from Mexico several years before to be closer to her daughter and grandkids. Yet when I dropped her off she became teary-eyed telling me she dreaded going into her empty apartment.

“It’s just me and God and I miss having people to talk to.” While she is in touch with her daughter and grandkids, “they are busy with their lives and don’t have much time for me.”

She doesn’t drive and has trouble walking so even taking the bus can be hard because she has to get to the bus stop from her apartment. She isn’t connected to any group—doesn’t have a way to go to church—and basically sits in her apartment all day. This articulate, 75 year old woman has lived an active life, raising kids, caring for her husband, working in an office. But now she is disconnected, alone, and her health is failing. She has given up.

There are so many people in our community who are isolated and have no social network to speak of, particularly our elders. Even those of us who are surrounded by family and friends often crave a sense of community with our increasingly wired lifestyles.

With all of our advances in technology and production, we have lost the deep connections our parents and grandparents had with their neighbors, their churches, and even the shopkeeper on the corner. Yet we know these connections are key to keeping us physically and emotionally healthy.

So what are some ways we can help isolated people—and all of us—create the type of social network that can support us as we strive to make healthy lifestyle decisions that will result in longevity and quality of life?

Friends. Faith. Family. We give these values lip service. But what do they really look like when they are part of our daily lives?

1. Friends: Nurture relationships offline as well as online. Be proactive with contacts and friends you know, whether from work, school, neighbors or family. Nurture friendships with people you know have healthy habits. Plan regular walks with neighbors; invite people over for a simple meal or set a regular potluck gathering date once a month or more often. Introduce yourself to a neighbor by sharing a small holiday gift, flowers from your garden or a plate of food. Join one of the many free exercise programs for seniors and others offered around the community.

2. Having a belief system isn’t just about religion. But faith communities and churches are a great way to connect on a meaningful level with others. “People who feel their life is part of a larger plan and are guided by their spiritual values have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, a lower risk of heart attack and cancer and heal faster and live longer,” says Harold G. Koenig, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center.

3. Make family a priority and nurture supportive relationships. Studies have shown the average American parents spends just 19 minutes a day engaged in childcare and meaningful communication with their children. We can all work at simplifying our routine and looking for beneficial activities to do with extended family members and children.

It’s hard to make time for meaningful interactions with our elders. While I am blessed to have both my parents nearby, I often struggle to fit them into our busy lives. But when I see my daughter playing cards with her grandfather, or my teenage sons sharing details of their lives with their grandmother while eating a meal together, I realize how crucial these moments are to the health and development of my children, and the quality of life of my parents.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is launching new initiatives in our area, and partnering with several organizations through the UT School of Public Health Community Advisory Board to help connect the elderly and young. The group is surveying elders in the Brownsville area to identify areas of strength, needs and gaps.

While a lot of progress has been made with Brownsville being recently named an “Age-friendly City”, there is always work to be done to connect those most vulnerable and isolated elderly in our communities. Veronica de la Fuente, local AARP representative is excited about upcoming events and programs where we will engage our aging in place community to discover their real possibilities.

“We are planning a careers in transition life event on November 5th, and a‘ Movies for Grown-ups Premiere’ on August 28th. We will also host a TEK event which provides a friendly way for older folks in our community to learn to use e-readers, social networks and mobile devices, and understand online security.” For more information, please visit: www.AARP.org/Texas

Years of scientific study has established both a theoretical basis and strong empirical evidence for a causal impact of social relationships on health. Here in the Valley we clearly value family and relationships, but we can easily get caught up in the faster paced world we live in and become more isolated.

It’s important to remember the lessons learned from the healthiest communities in the world—reach out to people around you in meaningful ways, particularly your elders, because it’s good for your health and theirs! Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)