By Sonya Stinson
Remember when you changed jobs and promised to keep up with your office lunch buddies, but you never found the time? Maybe you've lost track of your high school or college classmates since that reunion you attended two decades ago. Or perhaps it's only during the years you've been a caregiver that many of your past social connections have unraveled.
Make a New Year's resolution to finally make good on those promises to say in touch, and you could gain more than just a rekindled friendship—you may even reap better health.
Researchers have documented the health effects of social isolation on family caregivers, including anxiety and depression, says Molly Perdue, MS, PhD, executive director of the Alzheimer's Family Caregiver Support Center of Cape Cod. But Perdue believes that increasing social engagement is “as good as any anti-depressant," for improving caregivers' mental health.
“Just by reducing social isolation and widening the social circle of a primary caregiver, the evidence shows that people have fewer depressive symptoms, less anxiety—and they are able to care better, longer," says Perdue, who has a master's degree in clinical, counseling and applied psychology.
Here are a few ways to reconnect.
Link up long-distance
If too many miles separate you and your old friends to meet in person right away, start with a call, text or email. Search to see if they're on LinkedIn or Facebook, then offer to follow or connect.
Once you've reintroduced yourself, they'll probably respond saying they're surprised and happy to hear from you. Make a point to continue the conversation with periodic updates on family, career and personal news: graduations, weddings, job promotions, retirements. You may discover that some of them are also family caregivers who are glad for the opportunity to share their stories with someone who can relate.
Get Together for a Getaway
Consider getting backup care so you can go on a girlfriends' getaway or guys' retreat. You can meet up at a favorite old hangout or take in a completely new experience together. Get concert tickets, go on a fishing trip, book an afternoon of spa treatments or go back to that restaurant you used to love near the office.
Your getaway might be for a whole weekend, a day or a just a couple of hours, but the benefits of taking that respite—and sharing the experience with a friend—will be long-lasting.
Extend or Accept an Invitation to Visit
Make this the year you finally get around to having your old neighbors over to your new house (at least it was new several years ago). Prepare a simple meal, host a potluck or put out a gourmet spread, if you're so inclined. Maybe you and your old pals would rather have casual cookout or pizza and wine while you watch TV.
If you've been turning down invitations to dinner or weekends at a friend's cottage on the lake, make this the year you start saying yes.
Make reconnecting a priority
You may be thinking that you simply don't have time to socialize. It was hard enough to stay connected with friends as your children and job responsibilities grew. Now, with caregiving added to the demands on your time, it may be even more difficult. But the effort is worth it, because friendships and other social connections are as important to your health as those New Year's vows to lose 10 pounds and use your gym membership.
By all means, let go of any feeling that you're neglecting your aging family member if you take some time to enjoy yourself with your friends. You can even encourage your senior family members to make New Year's resolutions of their own. Take a tip from an article for AARP by clinical psychologist and family therapist Barry J. Jacobs, who writes: “When caregivers embrace the idea that seeing friends makes them hardier, they no longer suffer guilt over having fun."