Living with OA as a senior? Here’s what you need to know about staying connected

When we’re in pain, sometimes it can be difficult to motivate ourselves to get out there and socialize.  But staying socially connected can help us maintain our health and find support when needed.

There’s an important potential link between a lack of social connection and osteoarthritis (OA) in seniors, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study looked at older European adults and found that those living with clinically-diagnosed OA in the hip and knee, or in a combination of the hip, knee and hand, were more likely to have an increased risk of social isolation over the course of the 18-month study.

This is part of a growing conversation about how social connections are a key aspect of physical and mental health. “There’s a general consensus now in the scientific community that social isolation is an independent risk factor when it comes to ill health and even mortality,” says Dr. Keri-Leigh Cassidy, clinical academic director of Dalhousie’s Geriatric Psychiatry/ Seniors Mental Health Program of the Nova Scotia Health Authority. “Social isolation can reduce longevity by about three years, similar to the impact of obesity or smoking. If you have a pre-existing condition, you can make it worse by being very isolated—we can put ourselves at risk of developing conditions like depression or cognitive impairment. [For] those who have chronic pain or mobility difficulties due to arthritis, paying attention to the need for social contact support, in the face of those challenges, is worthwhile.” In this article, Dr. Cassidy shares some suggestions on what to keep in mind about social connection.

Find your balance

Some people are in their element in a big talkative group, while others prefer one-on-one interaction and are energized by time on their own—either is totally fine.  Time alone can be restorative, but too much alone time can start to have a negative impact.  It’s important to find a balance.  “There will be a big difference from one individual to another in how much they seek out, enjoy or benefit personally from social activity. There needs to be a balance over the course of a day or a week,” says Dr. Cassidy. She points out that “humans are social by nature; we come into the world that way and require nurturing relationships, and that need for trusted relationships continues throughout our lives.”

Just chat

Deep relationships take time to cultivate, but there is also evidence that just having frequent, pleasant social interactions is also good for our health, says Dr. Cassidy. “When we say hello to people in the grocery store, and have a warm and friendly approach to people, then that obviously increases the chance of having that reflected back to us in the course of our day.”

Join in

Finding a group that suits you and your interests, whether it’s curling or puzzles or building birdhouses for a conservation area, is also a good move.  Check out a local community centre or public library for free events in your area. “Groups help us get out of our regular routines, give us interaction and add some variety. They create a little bit of a social network, so someone checks in on you when you’re not there,” notes Dr. Cassidy. You can also benefit from getting together with people to do some kind of physical activity, as staying active is a great way to manage your arthritis.  

Deepen relationships

Spend time on relationships important to you, she says. “Make time to have coffee or meet up for a meal, or just a telephone call. Spending time with the people we know best is another way to promote social well-being.”

Put tech to work

Social media and technology can get a bad reputation for contributing to social isolation or superficial relationships, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Video chats through FaceTime, Skype and similar apps can help you connect more easily to loved ones who are far away. The internet also offers information on how best to connect with others in meaningful ways and scientific information about social connection. Dr. Cassidy is the founder of a national non-profit called the Fountain of Health Initiative which shares the science of brain health and well-being as well as ways to maximize your health and happiness. The website also offers a free web-based app, The Wellness App which allows you to set and track your health goals, including social goals, to promote wellbeing.  Once you’ve identified a goal, Dr. Cassidy recommends, “Talk with a health care provider about what your goals are to ensure your goals are right for you, and to have support and follow up to check in on how it’s going.”

Taking time to rest is an essential part of self-care when you’re living with arthritis, but seeking out social interaction should also be part of your plan. Trying something new, re-engaging with a favourite activity and forging some connections in your community are all great ways to strengthen your social connections and improve your quality of life.

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