You Are Not Alone
Avoiding social isolation as we age.
By Ilene Raymond Rush
July 2008 — An active social life may do more than keep you busy – it may keep you physically and mentally fit.
A number of medical studies note the benefit of strong support groups for a wide variety of chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer and asthma. Depression, diabetes and social isolation – particularly among women – have also been closely linked.
The newest findings show that staying socially active as we age can actually boost brainpower, by providing "emotional validation and feelings of self-worth that actually help maintain memory."
What do these research findings mean for aging baby boomers with type 2 diabetes? To my eye, the message is clear: Along with counting your carbs, taking your meds, keeping track of your sugars, and staying physically fit, social involvement with family, friends, and community is vital.
For some, filling the social engagement part of the type 2 diabetes prescription comes easily. But for others, particularly those entering the second half of life, social ties may gradually grow harder to maintain. Older children get busy with jobs and their own activities; close friends may become bogged down with their own health-related issues or those of a sick spouse. Retirement, often portrayed in slick media commercials as the ideal time to relax with friends, pursue neglected hobbies, or travel may not pan out that way. A host of socio-economic issues, a loss of familiar daily routines, and loneliness can bring new and unexpected challenges.
The issue of social isolation has become particularly close to me as I've watched my mom slowly regain her footing after the recent death of my dad. Over the years of his long illness, their social circle had pretty much shrunk to immediate family and the many doctors and nurses responsible for his care. Now that he's gone, she's lucky to count on her four children and neighbors at the complex where she lives for weekly company. But our phone calls and visits don't (and can't) measure up to the daily company of my father. Alone, it's easier for my mom to stay in the apartment, to skip meals, to sleep too much.
On a personal level, my years of struggling with the double whammy of type 2 diabetes and bipolar II illness have led me to think of the topic of social interaction/isolation as a chicken and egg affair. A feeling of social isolation may lead to feeling depressed, and feeling depressed may lead to falling off my diet and exercise routine. Or, is it that I fall off my diet and exercise routine, thus raising my sugars, then become depressed, which leads to isolating myself from others?
More important than figuring out why the feelings of isolation exist, however, is to figure out how to avoid them. A few ideas:
Volunteer. Some of the most rewarding times in my life have been spent tutoring kids to write college essays in a nonprofit organization for underprivileged students. Go to volunteermatch.org (which even offers opportunities specifically geared to +55's) and see if you can mentor a child or teach a skill.
Do the world some good. If that doesn't appeal, a presidential campaign year like this is rolling with chances to lend a hand – phone banking, canvassing, even painting signs. If you're not much of a politico, how about signing up to support a cause? Health care, civic planning, green issues all need helpers to promote their agendas.
Join a club. If you miss the routine of work, find a group that meets on a regular basis: a book club at a public library, a coffee klatch of retirees, even a lunch group of neighbors. Or try the adult school for a once a month trip or class.
Get a dog. Man's (and woman's) best friend involves a fair amount of work. As a first-time dog owner at age 53, I've found that daily walking can be a mood booster, and keeping Fido's (or in our case, Noodle's) schedule can also inspire you to maintain your own. Dogs provide a sure conversation starter and a once a day trip to a local dog park can bring joy and new social contacts into your life.
Let me be honest: the health problems associated with a lack of social connections are clear, while the solutions to the dilemma of social isolation are not. Like most tough issues, getting into the social swing may take time, nerve, and even some false starts. But the important first step is to know that when it comes to social isolation, you are not alone.
dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.
Many people say that depression is a side effect or complication of diabetes. Without discounting the association of the psychological condition with the physical one, I'm not convinced that our high and/or unstable glucose levels are directly responsible for that change in our mental state. My belief is that the unrelenting need for self-care, for following the sort of care schedules that can drive licensed, professional caregivers crazy, is what overwhelms us...