We’ve all read articles praising the virtues of close friendships. But now, as it turns out, research is demonstrating that even our casual day-to-day connections with people we may barely know can bring important mental and physical benefits for seniors. Many of these casual interactions came to a virtual halt during the pandemic, causing many seniors to experience a serious sense of isolation from those around them. Now that a high percentage of U.S. seniors are vaccinated, they’re rediscovering the power of casual relationships.
After Pandemic Isolation, Seniors are Hungry to Reconnect
We read about the unsung importance of casual relationships for seniors in this recent Kaiser Health News article by reporter Judith Graham. She gives readers a perfect example of the power of reconnection in the story of Vincent Keenan of Chicago, who recently traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia for a wedding. Keenan, 65, found himself greeting every single service worker, fellow customer, and TSA agent along his journey, becoming more and more fulfilled with every interaction, however small.
“I was striking up conversations with people I didn’t know everywhere I went,” he said of the experience. “Even if they just grunted at me, it was a great day.”
Graham explains that these superficial relationships with workers, neighbors, and other casual acquaintances are called “weak ties”, and are actually an integral part of a well-rounded life, something many of us missed during the months of quarantine and avoiding contact with others. While Keenan confesses to being an extrovert, many older adults are finding renewed joy in rediscovering these small, significant connections as they venture back out into the world again.
Casual Relationships Provide Connection, Energy
“These ties can cultivate a sense of belonging, provide bursts of positive energy, motivate us to engage in activities, and expose us to new information and opportunities,” Graham writes, “all without the emotional challenges that often attend close relationships with family and friends.”
And research bears that up. Studies like this one done some years ago have shown that casual relationships carry several benefits, and that older adults who cultivate these wide, shallow “weak ties” (along with more intimate ones) have a higher sense of all-around well-being, and can even live longer than people with more narrow bubbles of interaction. This comes into play especially as adults age and beloved friends or family move away or die; diverse social networks can act as a buoy for emotional and physical health.
The More Interactions Each Day, the Happier We Feel
Talking to strangers may have been discouraged when we were children, but research shows that this practice can actually build tools against loneliness, create a deeper sense of trust, and even bolster feelings of happiness. It’s true not just for those who see themselves as extroverted, either; introverts can benefit from these regular interactions with acquaintances, too.
One of the researchers in this field is Gillian Sandstrom, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Essex. She says, “Feeling connected to other people, not just the people who are closest to you, turns out to be incredibly important.”
Casual Connections are Free of Emotional Complications
According to researcher Katherine Fiori, one of the major reasons that casual connections can be so meaningful is because they are shallow, and don’t carry the emotional weight of intimate relationships. The fewer the complications, the easier the exchanges.
Graham tells the story of Lynn Eggers from Minneapolis, who used to love visiting her local coffee shops and the gym, before COVID brought a halt to those interactions. Eggers expressed that she loved the ability to be both “in a group and alone” when in those places, and feeling like part a community simply by existing in that space.
Eggers, like many others, stopped taking public transportation in the midst of the pandemic, halting her ability to see glimpses into the lives of her fellow commuters through light, casual conversations. But she found another way of connecting: taking daily walks around her neighborhood. And the neighborhood, it turns out, can be a real mainstay of casual relationships.
Neighborhood Connections Have Become More Significant
Because the worlds of so many individuals shrank during the pandemic, neighborhoods took on a whole new meaning. Karen Fingerman, a professor of human ecology at the University of Texas-Austin, says, “Many people may have found that neighbors, mail carriers and delivery people became more important during the pandemic — simply because they were around when others were not.”
Fingerman goes on to suggest that “the key is to get out in daily life again” as pandemic restrictions lift, and that reengagement with a diverse population and varied activities can go a long way to rebuilding a sense of community.
Helen Bartos of Rochester, New York, told Graham how, during COVID, her condominium community would gather outside to chat, wearing masks and bringing chairs and drinks to make the whole thing more comfortable. “It was very bonding,” she says. “All of these people are neighbors; now I would call some of them friends.”
For another woman, Ellie Mixter-Keller of Milwaukee, the “connection solution” was more virtual, but no less effective. As she explained to Graham, she attended social gatherings sponsored by Meetup, an activity group that brings people together both online and off. “It was my salvation,” Keller says. “It exposed me to a bunch of new people who I didn’t have to date or have to dinner.”
As vaccinations become more widespread and reconnections are more and more possible, organizing or joining a gathering—whether in your neighborhood or based on your interests—is a great way to rejoin the world post-quarantine and rediscover the life-giving, health-boosting joy of casual relationships.
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Photo Credit: www.thearches.co.uk/arts/creative-learning
(originally reported at www.khn.org)