Social connections help caregivers stay healthy through the long struggle of dealing with #dementia. It’s not easy to spend time with friends when you’re immersed in #caregiving. But research shows that staying connected with people can have a positive impact on your physical and emotional health.
I didn’t write here for a while because I was practicing the important skill of networking with people I love. Over the past few weeks, I was able to spend some time with old friends from college and work. Several years ago, my college circle lost a cherished member. Our friend died of ovarian cancer. The rest of us continue trudging along — searching for meaning and joy as we go. We have all had to face the complexities of caring for aging parents. Each one of us bears that stress in different ways. But even as our lives grow more complicated, we understand the value of maintaining our friendships. They give us strength.
Many people have examined the positive effects of building strong social connections. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Bethany Kok, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have researched the topic for years. Their work studies the links between emotions and social connections. Frederickson says their research shows that daily moments of connection with others “emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health.”
Erickson, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology, is not the only researcher reviewing the impact of social connections. John Cacioppo, professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, looks at the issue from a different perspective. His group studied the ways that a lack of social connections can influence health. Cacioppo found that feelings of isolation can interrupt healthy sleep, increase our levels of cortisol, alter our immune cells, and prompt feelings of depression. In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Cacioppo says that “when you allow for all the other factors, you find that chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 20%…which is about the same effect as obesity.”
I’m not a scientist, but my life has teetered on both sides of this divide. Last winter, I felt isolated by my #caregiving duties. I was very close to falling into depression. Bringing hospice support into my house lifted my burden in small ways at first. When hospice aides helped me get more free time, I could feel my mood rise. Once my mood improved, I had more energy to go out and take positive actions to improve my health. First I started walking more, then I began to go for bike rides. All these things made me feel better, but nothing beats quality time with friends. Taking time to re-connect with them has given me the fuel I lacked just a few months back.
If you feel like you want some of that social fuel, start getting it by making a list of the people you miss. Maybe you read each other’s notes on Facebook, or send the occasional email. But when was the last time you called and talked to them for more than five minutes? If there is someone you are missing, just pick up that phone and see if you can’t re-connect. Start the conversation by remembering some fun you once shared. See where it goes from there. We only live this one time and so many things in life can wear us down. #Caregiving has its high points, but it can beat us up physically and emotionally. Taking the time to nurture our best relationships can help us rise once again. Even if we can’t re-build a strong connection immediately, it is worth the effort to try and try again.