Seniors need to socialize to keep communication skills

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Senior citizens living alone and independently in apartments should interact often with others - both friends and family members - if they want to maintain their ability to communicate, a new University of Michigan study showed.

Seniors often view a move to senior housing as a negative step in their lives. Instead, the U-M study suggests that a seniors’ setting with organized activities provides opportunities for interaction that are beneficial for maintaining communicative skills, said Deborah Keller-Cohen, a U-M professor of women’s studies and linguistics.

Much is known about the association between declines in cognitive function among the elderly and the ability to communicate, but little has been explored about what role social engagement might play in that relationship. The U-M research targeted people 85 and older—the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, Keller-Cohen said.

U-M researchers examined the relationships among social engagement, cognition and communicative skills. They reviewed notebooks kept by the study’s participants, who tracked the frequency, purpose and quality of interactions. The participants were tested on their ability to name objects in pictures, a common measure of language skill ability.

Individuals who experienced less cognitive decline were involved in a wider range of relationships, each of which challenges individuals to speak and listen to others on a range of topics. Thus, this diversity in interaction would seem to keep one’s linguistic skills activated, she said.

When the elderly limited their contact solely to family members, they didn’t fare as well as they could have with communications skills had they also interacted with others, Keller-Cohen said. Although additional research is required, this might have implications for how senior living centers structure programming and activities.

"It’s possible that as individuals decline cognitively, they become less able to handle social contact and become more dependent on family members who by virtue of kin obligations, will continue to interact with them," she said.

This research, "Social contact and communication in people over 85," was presented at the recent American Psychological Association conference in Hawaii. Other U-M researchers for this study are Amanda Toler, Diane Miller, Katherine Fiori and Deborah Bybee.

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