BY BOB GELIK
Heating your home costs money.
That warm glow you feel when spending time with friends costs nothing.
Medications to keep your heart ticking cost money.
Playing with your grandchildren to lift your spirit and to create lasting memories costs nothing
Groceries for meals and keeping the house running cost money.
Enjoying dinner conversations with family and friends that keep your brain working and deepen understanding costs nothing.
Our lives can seem like a journey along two parallel paths we’re continually crossing between. One is bordered by thickets of dollar signs whose branches reach out and get in our way. The other is lined with family, friends and even strangers in pleasant little gardens who want nothing more than a bit of our time and interest.
Both are necessary. It’s important to learn to navigate between them and how much time to spend on each path. As people near retirement, concerns over the amount of Social Security payments, pensions, IRAs and 401k plans and payouts loom large, as they calculate how to deal with mortgages, loans, insurance, medical expenses, utility bills, etc.
Such concerns can divert people from the social interaction path, which is also important to their well-being, according to several local leaders experienced in working with senior citizens.
“We plan financially, (for retirement),” Nancy Post, director of Volunteer Initiatives for Voluntary Action Center, said. “It’s a great idea to think about other things” such as health and activities you want to pursue. It’s those activities that provide the opportunity for social interaction.
“It’s important to be social in retirement. It creates a social system that gives happiness and joy and meaning in your life,” Debra Fetherman, Ph.D., director of the Community Health Education Program at the University of Scranton, said.
“Everyone needs social support systems” as we age physically, socially and emotionally, Fetherman said. “Creating … helps with cognitive abilities, helps minimize some of the memory loss you may be experiencing. Social supports help you have better health behaviors.”
Laurie Fleming, director of the active older adults program for United Neighborhood Centers in Lackawanna County, described social interaction as “one of the best medicines for whatever ails you. … I see that at the centers. When you talk to people, a lot of illness is brought on by stress.” Older people often are subject to a sense of loneliness, she said. Attending one of the four active older adult centers helps break them out of that feeling of being alone. “I see a big difference with people who come to the centers; their whole demeanor changes.”
“Everybody feels welcome and part of the group; like they’re part of the community. They may not feel they need it (socialization) but it’s crucial for them,” said Nancy Brown, manager of the West Side and Carbondale Active Older Adult Community Centers. “I strongly believe everybody needs socialization. It is beneficial and has a positive influence on them.”
To say there is a positive side to social interaction implies there is a downside to avoiding contact with others, especially to the point of isolation.
Those who don’t have a social connection, according to Post, have a high risk of depression and emotional problems and those who live independently are more likely to run that risk. “I know seniors who stay at home, who do not choose to go out to socialize and they are often lonely and depressed. They don’t know it, but they are,” Post said. “By the time they reach that point, they won’t change.”
Fetherman said people who have high-intensity or high-level jobs and who retire without preparation, may suddenly find themselves with nothing to do and struggle to cope. Their daily work is gone, she said, but moreover, “people have a built-in social life at work” and that may have vanished as well. As a result, they may feel lost and are unable to cross the bridge to unemployment.
To avoid the negative impacts of refraining from interacting with others, the simple answer is for a person to get involved in something that interests him or her. Not only does a person engage in an activity he or she finds enjoyable, but also any group activity affords the chance to interact with people. That interaction is in itself rewarding.
Here are a few suggestions for action whether you’re looking to retire within the next several years or if you’re well along in receiving Social Security checks.
Pre-retirement planning, “is not done enough,” Post said. “Take stock of your life when you hit your 50s.”
“You need to prepare for it (retirement) just like anything else in your life,” Fleming said. “You have to try things. Try volunteering or various social activities. If it doesn’t work, try something else.” In the process, she said, a person might learn of something new to try. Take a trial-and-error approach, but she emphasized not letting the activity create more stress in your life.
Planning for what you want to do in your retirement years, Fetherman said, can help people avoid the obligation trap. An obvious one is babysitting — the stereotype that grandma and grandpa are retired, so they can watch the kids.
“Sometimes people feel they have to do it,” she said. “They should do it (any activity) out of passion not a sense of obligation.”
“Think about what you plan to do based on your passions, things to help you feel connected to the world around you,” Fetherman said.
Many times pursuing a passion comes in the form of volunteering services to nonprofit agencies.
Fleming pointed out everyone develops a skill or competency in the course of their adult working life that can be used in a nonprofit organization. “And the nonprofits will love you for it,” she said, adding that many depend on the skills of volunteers to fulfill their missions.
As a starting point, Fleming suggested retirees visit their churches. “That’s one of the first things you can do.” There also are the Area Agency on Aging and the Voluntary Action Center that acts as a clearinghouse for volunteers for local charities and nonprofit organizations.
Post said she has a list of 75 to 80 agencies whose needs for volunteers are updated regularly.
“We have been approached by people who want to volunteer immediately after retiring. They need something to do,” Post said. VAC staffers talk with the would-be volunteers, but often they don’t return immediately, and that’s a good thing, she said.
“They take time to figure out what they want to do,” she said.
Fetherman said that in choosing where to volunteer, the activity should be whatever a person feels can have meaning. “Maybe a legacy to the next generation,” she said, “wherever they feel they can give back.”
“Libraries and churches (and other groups) have gotten on the bandwagon for education (opportunities) for seniors,” Post said. “You can find a lot of things to do.” She cited the auditing of classes at the University of Scranton and the Senior Learning Institute at Marywood University as two examples.
What the classes provide, she said, is interaction with classmates. “It’s about the people you meet there” as much as what you can learn.
Post said there are lots of inexpensive programs available in the area, and all provide some degree of social contact.
Fetherman also cited the Area Agency on Aging and United Neighborhood Centers’ Active Older Adult Community Centers along with local churches, which have community groups, and area nonprofit organizations that have opportunities for volunteers as ways to get involved in activities and thereby interact with other people.
She added, “I’m a big proponent for physical activities.” The YMCA has low-cost programs, as do the University of Scranton and UNC. “There are a lot of opportunities for people to be social in those kinds of settings.”
Another area is fun runs that raise money for worthy causes, like Alzheimer’s research. Participating, she said, leads to “a feeling of giving back through those types of organizations.”
Fetherman said that nutrition as taught in her Growing Stronger classes is the kind of thing that can improve socialization. “Food is very social or can be very social. Learning about it in a healthful way is always important,” she said.
Brown pointed out that the lunches served at West Side Active Older Adult Community Center are always well attended.
“When lunchtime comes, the tables will fill up and the conversations will start,” she said.
Brown agreed with the idea of looking to churches as a means of volunteering and increasing social contact. “St. Lucy’s (about a block from the West Side center) is a big focus for these people. That religious component is important to people here and those in Carbondale as well.”
She said the VAC’s Senior Companion Program volunteers enjoy a socially reciprocal relationship with the West Side’s center’s members. They assist some members, she said, “but some may be coming here TO socialize.” They may be working as companions through the program but they also are doing it because they need to socialize as well.
While there’s consensus that maintaining social interaction after retirement is good for a person’s outlook and health, there are degrees of participation or even the need for socialization.
“Some people choose not to be social, and you have to respect that,” Post said. “They probably have been that way all their lives. You can’t force them” to socialize with others.
Brown said, “they’re all different. That’s the way people are in general. Some like to sit, listen and watch. Some take more time to become comfortable and come out of their shell.”
“You see it in the centers. You see people who just come,” Fleming said. Some may be quiet, just observe and may engage in an activity “if you ask them.” Others, she said, join in from the get-go, “and you know they were probably like that (very outgoing) in high school. They volunteer and get involved in activities.”
Fleming added, “You don’t have to be active to benefit from it. It’s not wrong or right, it’s whatever meets the needs of that individual.”
Socialization, Fleming said, “is more important as you get older because it’s very easy to sit on the couch and not do anything.” That can lead to depression. “It is important to be engaged especially when you’re older. A person’s back can hurt, the knees can hurt. It’s easy to sit on the couch, easy to fall into the depression trap.”
Fleming’s answer to the social considerations of aging:
“Whatever you love, do it!”
Local programs recognize importance of social interaction
While it’s obvious that having a solid financial footing is a key part of a comfortable retirement, it is not the only thing that makes it enjoyable. Several local programs recognize the importance of social interaction. Two are available and a third is in the planning to be launched in 2018.
Nancy Post, director of Volunteer Initiatives for Voluntary Action Center, cited a VAC program called Wellness Initiative for Senior Education which goes by the acronym WISE. It has six-week sessions for seniors who meet once a week at several locations in Lackawanna County including some high-rise housing units, churches and the Gathering Place in Clarks Summit. VAC personnel guide those attending through discussions of all aspects of aging. She said people want to talk about these issues. “And they feel very comfortable sharing,” Post said.
Debra Fetherman, Ph.D., director of the Community Health Education Program at the University of Scranton, has been involved with the Growing Stronger Program in conjunction with Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lackawanna County. Most participants — ranging in age from mid-50s to 80s — are retired. Participants meet twice a week. The program works on both physical strength training and nutrition lessons.
She pointed out there is a socialization component to both.
“Exercise and physical activity are good for mental and social needs,” Fetherman said. “When exercising, it’s not just exercising. It’s the social interaction they’re getting while they’re exercising.” They “talk about what’s happening in their lives. Exercise helps them be social,” she said.
Meanwhile, United Neighborhood Centers in Lackawanna County is developing a plan to operate an Aging Mastery Program, according to Laurie Fleming, director of the Active Older Adult Program for UNC. The program is from the National Council on Aging and consists of 10 core curriculums.
Of the core curriculums, Fleming said. One is about community engagement and another focuses on healthy relationships. Both, she said, look at “exploring the benefits of being socially active as well as the risk of isolation.” — Bob Gelik