The importance of community connection in our later life

Communities are essential to our sense of belonging, our health, wellbeing and our quality of life. However, the elderly group can gradually withdraw from the community and social activities while they age. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) suggests that the absence of strong social supports in the form of loneliness and social isolation have been shown to be harmful to the wellbeing of older adults. This post discusses social isolation, social capital, the benefits of communities and dementia-friendly communities.

Social isolation risks

It can be challenging to stay connected as we age and as we withdraw we can become isolated. This can occur for anyone. But those that are ageing are at a higher risk. Challenges older people face to stay connected are:

  • Lack of supportive transportation

  • Limited mobility due to health conditions

  • Loved ones and friends move away

  • Morning loss of family and friends

On top of the challenges people face as they age and try to remain connected to the community, those living with dementia have additional barriers. Social isolation was associated with poorer self-rated health, functional limitations, poorer quality of life, and depressive symptomatology (TILDA).

What is social capital?

Social capital is the human interaction that builds trust, connection and participation within a community. Research has shown that higher social capital within communities results in improved health and wellbeing of the entire community, especially older people. Typically, our health and social capital decline with age, making this increasingly important for older people. As we age our social contracts and engagement decrease. This is due to loss of family and friends due to illness or death, family and friends moving to a different area or retirement from jobs. Having a community that focuses on sharing, health, supporting others and happiness can help increase the social capital and therefore improve the lives of those within the community. A study by Yvonne Michael, an epidemiologist from the Drexel University School of Public Health, showed that communities with higher social capital allow for greater mobility of older people. A community with strong social capital is able to create a supportive system that does not only care for those that are ageing but for all those that are facing challenges in their lives. Older people living in the community feel safer and more trusting of those around them, this leads to them feeling more comfortable to walk around on their own.

Benefits of being in communities

Our health can be directly linked to social connection. Those that do not maintain or develop social connection with family and friends are at risk for mental health challenges, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Being in a community with peers can have a positive impact on the quality of life as well as the length of life. Older people benefit from:

  • Life enriching programs

  • Opportunities for volunteerism

  • Peer to peer support

If the community offers additional support those living there may also benefit from:

  • Well balanced meals. Having a well-balanced diet is key to good health. As we age it can become more challenging to grocery shop or cook independently. Having support in meal preparation can ensure that nutrition does not suffer.

  • Fitness. Having fitness programs tailored to various levels can help keep bodies strong mentally and physically.

  • Engage with community life. Actively engaging with activities and social functions, will be beneficial for mental and spiritual wellness.

  • An environment of supported independence will be helpful to maintain the individual's current abilities and delay additional memory or physical losses that can occur with aging or dementia.

Dementia-friendly communities

Strong social capital can be applied to specific communities too. Dementia-friendly communities are communities, towns, cities or villages that understand, respect and support each other. For those living with dementia, it can feel challenging to engage with society as they may feel misunderstood. This is why many may begin to withdraw and unintentionally begin to isolate themselves. According to the Alzheimer’s Society over a third of people with dementia have felt lonely recently and a quarter of carers feel ‘cut off from society.’

Those living with dementia are still able to offer a lot to their community if supported appropriately. Everyone is able to help drive their community to a more dementia-friendly community. It is important that those living with dementia are listened to when taking steps to have a more inclusive community. Their experience and thoughts will be important in creating a community that will have a positive impact on their lives.

The Alzheimer's Society has eight suggested steps to beginning a dementia-friendly community. (1) get a group together, (2) select a leader for the group, (3) raise awareness, (4) involve those affected by dementia, (5) tell the world, (6) identify areas of local action, (7) monitor progress and (8) apply for recognition. Within step number 6, identify areas of location, there are 8 key areas for action.

  1. Arts, culture, leisure and recreation

  2. Business and shops

  3. Children, young people and students

  4. Community, voluntary, faith groups and organisations

  5. Emergency services

  6. Health and social care

  7. Housing

  8. Transportation

We all can benefit from communities that are strongly knitted together and support each other. That is especially so for those that are older and those living with dementia. They will need the support of communities more. It is important that communities work together and understand each other's needs. There will come a time for everyone where we will need to rely on the support of those around us.

Clonmannon Retirement Village is a community that is being developed with all this in mind. Creating a community that understands the importance of independence while also supporting and engaging with our neighbours. The community connection is further enhanced through Mylo. Ensuring that families and friends are staying connected through all life's stages.

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