One of the adjustments I’ve had to make at the retirement center where I’ve moved is that I’m obliged to associate with people I don’t know but with whom I am now living cheek by jowl. There must be 300 residents in the complex and odds are that when I sit down to a meal, it’s with strangers. As a former politician, I know how to make idle conversation. Harmless chatter was part of the job description. But that was 25 years ago and my life before that and after has been a solitary one. Frankly, I like being alone. Matching my pace or mood to others is an effort and sometimes I avoid taking meals in the dining room for that reason. My mother, who is Latin and always loves a party, often complains that I am too like my father: Germanic and sober and solitary. It’s true. His genes overwhelmed hers.
Given what I know about myself, I stopped to read a short article in Scientific American Mind because it warned against a solitary life. (“Join a Club, Stay Sharp,” by Erica Westly, Scientific American Mind, Jan/Feb 2015, pg. 19) Apparently, Greta Garbo’s desire to be alone isn’t a recipe for health.
Of course, I know friends are important, particularly as we age. I am lucky in mine. But I prefer to meet them on-on-one or maybe two where I can concentrate on their interests and what’s going on in their lives. Too many people around and I tend to fade. Perhaps I do so now because I don’t hear as well as I used to. My attention gets scattered and I feel I can do no justice to any of my friends. Unfortunately, my attitude may be a detriment as I grow older. Recent studies reveal that intimate interaction with one or two individuals has no positive effect on cognitive ability. The best benefit to the mind comes from socializing in a group and that benefit increases over time the more an older person stays in contact with others (Ibid, pg. 19) Participating in book clubs, community organizations and exercise classes boosts energy levels, which one-on-one conversation fails to do.
The difference between intimate conversations and group interaction is that the latter requires more effort to maintain, a fact I already knew. But being present in a group and engaging others reinforces self-identity which may, in turn, sharpen thinking skills. (Ibid pg. 19).
Certainly, my mother who turns 99 in February and who never went to a party she didn’t love, seems to validate the researchers’ findings. She likes people and life and people and life like her. My taciturn father, on the other hand, died at 68. If I’m to beat my gene pool, I fear I’ll have to take up line dancing.
(First published 12/3/15)