When Marge Burger's husband died of a heart attack, she made a sad discovery: Widows don't get invited to many dances. Or card games. Or dinners. "I still had loyal friends, but I just didn't seem to fit in," she says.
Like many seniors her age, the 74-year-old resident of Portland, Oregon, slipped into a quiet, lonely rut. She enjoyed time with her children and grandchildren, but she spent most of her time sitting around her house, trying not to miss a minute of her favorite soap operas. It was a comfortable life, and she hated it. "Living alone is the pits," she says. "When you enjoy a conversation with a cat, things are pretty bad.
Nobody in her situation would disagree: At any age, loneliness is a curse. And for older people, a lack of a social life can even be hazardous to their health. People who don't get out much often succumb to depression, a condition that in turn makes them vulnerable to many illnesses, including heart disease, alcoholism, diabetes and, perhaps, cancer.
Socializing extends your life
But just as loneliness can destroy a person's life, socializing can save it. In a 13-year study of almost 3,000 senior citizens, Harvard researchers found that social activities may be just as important to survival as regular exercise.
Seniors get more out of socializing than just a few extra years of life. Friendships and activities reduce stress, help people feel worthy and needed, and stimulate the mind. According to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, strong social contacts offer powerful protection against the mental declines that often go along with aging. And having strong friendships can also add years to one's life. A Spanish study published in the journal BMC Geriatrics found that having a confidant was linked to a 25 percent less risk of dying prematurely than an elderly person without a strong friendship.
And as Marge Burger found, it just takes a little effort to cash in on the benefits of friendships. A few months after her husband's death, she got involved in programs at the Elks' Club. She joined a bowling team for the first time in 40 years. She soon made friends with another woman stuck alone at home, and the two started attending symphonies and church services together.
Going back to church made the biggest difference in her life, she says. "I feel very secure there," she says. "There's always somebody who wants to reach out to you."
Fast forward to another decade, and Burger appreciates her friends, family and her social life more than ever. "When I get chances to laugh, reminisce and share, I'm not thinking about how much my back aches or how much my feet hurt," she says. "Any situation improves when you have people around you."
Rodriguez-Laso, Angel, Zunzunegui, Maria Victoria, et al, "The effect of social relationships on survival in elderly residents of a Southern European community: a cohort study," BMC Geriatrics;7:19.
Glass, Thomas A. Population based study of social and productive activities as predictors of survival among elderly Americans. BMJ. Vol. 319, 478-483.
Fourteen Friends. Fourteen Friends' Guide to Eldercaring: Practical Advice, Inspiration, Shared Experiences, Space for Your Thoughts. Broadway Books.