Over the many pivotal stages of our lives, the companions we share along the way play a key part in the satisfaction we feel about life and contribute to our ability to manoeuver through the many challenges that come up along the way.
Our social relationships have been proven, through many studies in many forms, to be a key factor affecting our health in a positive or negative way.
I spent four days this past week on my yearly camping trip with six mighty female companions I have known for the past 25 years.
Each member of the group must make a monumental effort to ensure this gathering happens, traveling from their home towns and rearranging seemingly difficult schedules.
But once there, we all realize that it is so worth the effort to join together in this way to keep our circle alive.
The conversation covers many topics as we sit in our lounge chairs around the now necessary propane fire, reflecting on our lives over the past year and also reaching back to the many changes we have all gone through over the course of our friendship.
The fact that each of us is indelibly strengthened by this time of shared bonding is felt emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually as we come to part at the end of the four days.
Without fail, I always come back refreshed and enlivened by the social connection of being with lie-minded others and being whole-heartedly supported with issues that sometimes grow into mountains within the confines of my own active imagination.
It is so much easier to withstand hardship with the support of a community, and the joyful moments of life are even sweeter when they can be celebrated with friends.
Put quite simply, we need one another. It’s in our interactions with others that our individual qualities become polished and refined.
Over the 13 years we gals have left our daily tasks behind and found solace in the trees and in each other, our sense of bonding has been honed to a well-oiled machine.
Each person’s strengths and weaknesses make up the cauldron that steams to perfection, as incredible gourmet meals are prepared, dishes are done in basins on the picnic table, tents are managed to be erected, and emotions are shared and accepted.
Each person is unique in what they offer and it comes together into a whole that is so rich and full in its achievement of companionship and even through occasional disagreement, unconditional acceptance.
I sat back and observed in awe the effort of each person to extend themselves to make this happen and reveled in the result as we came together on our final morning at the picnic table to join hands and minds in closure for the ending to this special time of joining.
It seems that as we age, the effort to join can sometimes feel like pushing an elephant.
To keep engaging and making the choice to not isolate, to not get lost in the cracks and gullies of our own minds, becomes more difficult as physical limitations, losses and challenges become more a part of our lives.
Social support, which may include practical assistance (often referred to as instrumental support) and emotional support, helps individuals cope with life stressors.
To improve our health as we age, the role of true companionship and connection to elevate our mood, release endorphins and foster well-being needs to be considered in more meaningful ways.
Rather than just engaging in activities that bring a room full of people together or providing instrumental activities of daily living that support independence, how can we encourage a deeper sense of giving and receiving for our older seniors that engages the heart, allows it to open and form connections that may alleviate or buffer stress, enhance positive affect, support resilience and foster a person’s sense of self-worth?
The potency of fostering these types of connections may be the necessary next frontier for targeted interventions to improve health across our growing lifespans and may directly result in a positive impact on the experience of aging. Where do we begin to engage heart-to-heart social relationships in building a healthier aging population?
Providing opportunities for seniors to share their vulnerability, their feelings of loss for all that is passing away, their inner desires that still remain deep within in them is validating and necessary.
I notice that when I do this with my clients, especially when increasing days of agitation and low energy are observed, sometimes tears are shed and in that bond of sharing, new energy and vitality comes with this release and the days that follow are brighter and happier.
It is through the patience and time given for emotional reconnection that positive health changes can and do happen.
Health is more about our state of mind than we realize and it takes time to understand the vision of life that moves in the heart of each person.
Artist Ma Dev Padma wrote about companionship this way: “Real unity—the kind of unity that distinguishes a community from a mere crowd—lies in a profound quality of mutual respect and a deeply felt recognition of the value of each and every participant.”
I do believe that practicing this respect of our elders in a new way, no matter what transitions of mind, body or environment they may be experiencing through the aging process, will elevate us as a society.
Think about your way of interaction with the elders that are within your sphere of “community” and make a small shift to be a true companion. It really is good for you.