Exercise, healthy diet, plenty of rest —that’s not all your body needs
Have you had your dose of connection lately? Studies suggest your immune system is a bit of a social butterfly.
Getting adequate social support not only has the ability to boost your spirits, but appears to be essential to your physical health as well. That support can take many forms, from interacting with a friend or loved one (pets count, too), volunteering at your favorite non-profit or being part of a sports team, service club, senior center or church.
Research continues to back up what many people have long known—loneliness takes its toll—and several programs are taking a lead to help residents not only live in their own homes as they grow older, but also stay socially integrated. These programs help the clients who are receiving the outreach as well as those who are providing it, as people on both ends are connecting with others in the process.
Take Gary Kramer, for instance, who believes helping those in need is a win-win. For the retired 67-year-old Windsor resident volunteering is about giving back to the community, and in return, he gets what he gives.
“My main reason for volunteering is I realize there are tremendous needs out in the community and a lot of them are not being filled. I’ve had a very fortunate and good life. I just really feel like giving back to other people and organizations that I am interested in,” he said, adding, “I am a social person. I was in sales for 29 years, building relationships. Now that I am retired I still miss the interaction with others and building relationships. And I find that volunteering allows me to fulfill those needs of mine.”
Kramer volunteers for a couple of nonprofits, including Catholic Charities. From caring for seniors, to feeding the homeless and providing encouragement to refugees, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa serves people of all faiths in six counties. Kramer is involved in the Home Alone Program, one of over 20 programs offered by the nonprofit.
Home Alone Program
The Home Alone program is a telephone outreach program for Sonoma County seniors who are homebound. Last year, more than 35,000 calls were made to check in on senior citizens that live alone.
“Sometimes, it’s the only call they receive all day,” said Kelly Conrad, communications manager at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Santa Rosa.
Volunteers of the Home Alone program call people on a daily basis, just to connect and see how they are doing, Kramer said.
“Several people say this just makes their day. They wouldn’t know what to do without us. It’s a really healthy thing,” he added. “If we don’t get a hold of them on my shift, the second shift calls them; and if the second shift doesn’t get a hold of them, we turn it over to the director to make sure [the person that hasn’t been reached is] okay. The program has helped locate people who have fallen and couldn’t get up, for instance.
In addition to volunteering for the Home Alone program, Kramer also volunteers for Meals on Wheels, a meal program for Sonoma County seniors, operated by the Council on Aging, for which he delivers food to up to 25 homes every Thursday. He is also active in his church and helps out at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on occasion, he said.
“I am just called as a person to do this. I see where we have tremendous needs in our community for helping people out who are less fortunate, and for me it’s self-satisfying,” Kramer said.
In his spare time, he hits the gym four or five days a week, catches a golf game when he can, and connects with family and friends—all of which “provide him with a lot of social activity.”
While not everyone is capable of getting physical exercise or going out into their communities, the key is staying connected to someone, if possible, even if it means simply talking on the phone.
“There’s growing scientific evidence that isolation is actually bad for your health. That being more socially connected in ways that are meaningful can help increase cognitive function and also improve feelings of well being,” said Dr. Deborah Barnes, an associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco and principal investigator of the Preventing Loss of Independence Through Exercise (PLIÉ) study. Catholic Charities is one of five partners involved in the study, funded by the Veterans Administration.
This particular program is for people who have cognitive impairment and dementia, focusing on the “abilities that are still maintained… with the goal of improving their function and quality of life,” Barnes said.
There are three aspects of it: “A physical component, which is training muscle memory for basic daily movements; a cognitive component, which focuses on in-the-moment, mindful-body awareness; and the third component is the social component, which is doing exercise in a circle and leaving time for interaction. We think in order for it to be successful, it needs all three of those,” she said.
A couple of pilot studies showed “very positive results, suggesting we were improving not only physical function, but also cognitive function and feelings of well being,” Barnes said.
“The clients really enjoy the sessions, and we have noticed two clients, in particular, that have exhibited challenging behaviors, previously, be able to calm themselves and really focus for the entire hour on calming themselves and tuning into their bodies,” Conrad said of those participating in the PLIÉ study at Catholic Charities.
Studies aside, however, not everyone is gregarious and outgoing. Some people are shy; others introverted or truly isolated, due to their circumstances, and that’s nothing to feel bad about. If, however, you are one of these people and you want to be more actively engaged, the good news is you might just be a phone call away. In addition to the programs mentioned in this article, there are senior centers and outreach programs in many towns throughout the county.
For more information about senior services offered through Catholic Charities, including the I’m Home Alone program, call 707-528-8712. The Council on Aging and Sebastopol, Healdsburg and other area senior centers also offer multiple outreach programs.
The Village Movement
The Sebastopol Village is a new option for seniors. It’s modeled after an international village movement that creates a social community and support network designed to help people age in place—to stay in their own homes and remain active in their towns and neighborhoods.
“It’s a virtual community that is mutually supportive and offers services and activities based on what the members want. The intent is to offer people as they get older the choice to age in place and to reduce isolation by offering interactive opportunities. In exchange for membership fees, The Village offers members organized social activities, provides various levels of support through volunteers who are often members themselves, and refers members to vetted services that exist in the community,” Sebastopol Village council member Susan Swartz said.
The Sebastopol Village will create a “neighborly support system and social network based on what members want or need, be it computer help, dog-sitting, organizing a poker club, or taking notes at doctor appointments,” Swartz added.
“Sonoma County has the third largest population of 85-year-olds and over in the country, and by 2030 it is projected that 30 percent of county residents will be 65 and older,” she said.
Sebastopol gerontologist Nancy Unger stressed the importance of this type of living arrangement. Unger is also a board member of 707 Villages, Inc., which essentially umbrellas the Sebastopol Village and aims to add more villages throughout Sonoma County in the future.
“I believe this is the only way that we are going to be able to cope with the huge numbers of us who are aging,” Unger said. “I believe what we have in place now [for independent and assisted-living arrangements, skilled nursing and in-home care] is only usable by the extremely wealthy, and most of us don’t have that kind of money and we don’t want to give up our homes and communities… And there are lots of us.”
But again, it’s not just about getting physical needs met. People, old and young, benefit from some soul food, too.
“It’s a basic human need: social connection,” Unger said, adding, “And even for people who have cognitive impairment and dementia, it remains an important human need.”
While the 64-year-old Unger is promoting a concept that will help people “support one another both instrumentally and socially,” she, too, is receiving those benefits in the process. “I am able to feel that my life continues to have purpose and that I can bring my expertise to bear, and I can work with some of my best gal pals,” she said.
The Sebastopol Village will not compete with other senior services but will hope to fill in the gaps as well as be a one-stop resource through the 707 Village, Inc. central office for members looking to see what is available. The Sebastopol Village will be the first in the larger 707 Villages, Inc., which will expand into other towns in the country. Other networks are already up and running in more than 200 communities in the U.S., according to Unger.
The Sebastopol Village is still in the formation phase, but hopes to open by the end of this year or early next year. Meanwhile, ongoing informational meetings to introduce the concept to Sebastopol area residents will continue. Meetings will be announced on Nextdoor.com, via flyers and word of mouth.
For more information, call 707-343-9595; visit 707villages.org; or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. 707villages is also on Facebook.
Breast Cancer Study Links Social Ties with Survival Rates
Women with invasive breast cancer who were also socially integrated—meaning those who had the most social ties with spouses, friends, community connections or family members—were shown to have significantly lower breast cancer death rates and disease recurrence than socially isolated women, states a recent study by Kaiser Permanente.
Data was collected and analyzed from breast cancer survivorship studies conducted in California, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, and Shanghai, China. Researchers examined how a range of lifestyle factors—including exercise, diet, weight management and quality-of-life factors, such as social ties—affect breast cancer survivorship. Within two years of being diagnosed with breast cancer, women answered surveys about their personal relationships and social networks. They were followed for up to 20 years.
“It is well established that women generally, and those with breast cancer with more social ties, have a lower risk of death overall,” said Candyce H. Kroenke, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research and lead author of the study, which has been published in the American Cancer Society journal “Cancer.”
While other studies link regular social interaction to a healthier immune system and faster medical recoveries, the Kaiser study is believed to be the largest study to date of social networks—the web of personal relationships that surround an individual—and breast cancer survival. The current study included 9,267 women diagnosed with stages 1 to 4 invasive breast cancer enrolled in the After Breast Cancer Pooling Project. It involved four studies of women with breast cancer, including one conducted at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
Compared to women who were socially integrated (many ties), women that were characterized as socially isolated (few ties) were 43 percent more likely to have a recurrence of breast cancer; 64 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, and 69 percent more likely to die from another cause, the Kaiser study states.