Many baby boomers and older adults remember growing up with a house that was always full of people. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the random stranger coming through town were common experiences. People would just "stop by" - and no one cared!
My husband and I recently watched, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" and we loved it as much as the first one. There is something about watching a big, loud, messy and interconnected family that triggers a primal wistfulness or a sweet nostalgia. We are primally wired to find comfort in the crazy, messy and ultimately protective sense of being part of a tribe, no matter how modern life becomes.
Sadly, this type of tumultuous intergenerational living is nearly extinct these days – and we are paying a bigger price than we think. As we have become more affluent as a society, the trends in creating homes and lifestyles catering to small "nuclear families" have created a more isolating experience. With one in four adults over 50 getting divorced and empty nesters on the rise, studies show living alone has some adverse health effects.
Are you living alone due to an empty nest, divorce, widowhood or lifestyle choice? In addition to some of the challenges of having to manage all of the chores and expenses, studies show the isolation of living alone can increase the risk of our physical and mental health.
According to University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who co-authored, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection; loneliness and social isolation can be twice as threatening to our health as obesity, and is equally dangerous to our health as smoking.
“Chronic feelings of isolation can drive a cascade of physiological events that actually accelerates the aging process,” Cacioppo writes.
Loneliness has been shown to impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase the risk for vascular, inflammatory, and heart disease. Studies show that loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45%, and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64%. Like the famous rhesus monkey who failed to thrive, we require human interaction throughout our lives to survive.
Dan Buettner, author of the Blue Zones highlights five spots on the Earth with the greatest longevity. They all share nine characteristics, including strong social connections and a sense of purpose as keys to healthy aging. They drink a lot of wine, laugh a lot and rarely go to a gym. Buettner teamed up with the AARP and the United Health Foundation to recreate these nine traits in Albert Lea, MN. After one year, participants added an estimated 2.9 years to their average lifespan, and healthcare claims dropped 49 percent.
Around the world, communities are aging rapidly, with scores of older adults living alone. The phenomenon, which is most prevalent in cities, raises a host of health and safety issues for local governments. Middle-aged “baby boomers” account for the largest growth in people living alone in recent years, nearly doubling since 1999, and surpassing those 75 and older in the United States.
Time to Create a Modern Tribe
With modern families living far away from one another, we have to create our own tribes to fill our homes, communities and hearts with life. The movement of home sharing has reinvented the old fashioned multi-generational lifestyle. Not only taking in a tenant or roommate bring in additional income via rent, but a slew of social benefits as well.
The sharing economy has broken the barriers of sharing our cars, our stuff, and our homes. Not only does home sharing offer a means monetize unused space, but also to enjoy the flow of new social connections, and to become a community builder. Loneliness decreases and longevity increases.
If you weren’t lucky enough to be born into a “Big Fat” Greek/Italian/Jewish/Spanish/Asian family- make one! Make sure you house is regularly filled with people. Invite friends for a left-over potluck and don’t worry about cleaning the house- no one notices. Force yourself to engage in community gatherings. If you have space in your house that is unused - don’t be afraid to offer a room to someone who needs it- “the more the merrier” is often true.
What say you, Silvernest readers? Tell us some stories of how a big family or community group has enriched your life in the comments below.