A major challenge for elderly people is a sense of isolation and loneliness. The loss of a spouse or the busy schedules of children and grandchildren can exacerbate these feelings.

However, it is important to remember that many types of relationships — not just family relationships — have positive benefits. Interaction with friends or neighbors can help to alleviate loneliness and depression. Having someone to talk with or listen to can help create a sense of connection, which lessens a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation.

An interesting study, completed at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, revealed the effects of different types of activities for couples. The effect of the activities was measured by the rise of oxytocin released during the activity.

Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone.” Various studies have shown that oxytocin plays a fundamental role in forming social attachments and bonding. Commonly associated with the emotional connection between mothers and infants, oxytocin has also been shown to have a variety of other important benefits, including a calming effect on stress and anxiety.

The study was led by Dr. Karen Melton, professor of Child and Family Studies at Baylor University. Dr. Melton and her team investigated the amount of oxytocin released when teams of two either played a board game or took a couple’s art class. The team assembled a group of participants and randomly assigned them to one of the two types of activities.

Each person was asked to provide a urine sample before and after each activity. From the samples, the researchers were able to measure the change in each individual’s oxytocin level. The expectation of the researchers was that the more intimate setting of playing a game in a familiar and comfortable atmosphere would produce the strongest effect on oxytocin levels. However, the results were somewhat surprising, and varied according to gender:

  • The highest rise in oxytocin levels occurred in the men involved in the couple’s painting classes. In fact, the rise in oxytocin levels for men during this activity was twice as high as the rise among women doing any activity, or men playing a game.
  • The second-highest rise in oxytocin levels occurred in women playing board games.
  • The third-highest rise in oxytocin levels occurred in women involved in couple’s painting classes.
  • The smallest rise in oxytocin levels occurred in men playing board games.

It should be mentioned that even in the last three cases there was a significant rise in oxytocin levels, and that the difference in oxytocin levels was not large.

Dr. Melton and her team noted two issues associated with couple’s art classes that may have accounted for its strong effect on men. First, it was noted that individuals involved in art classes touched their partners more frequently than those who played board games. Second, it was hypothesized that art classes were more likely to be new and novel for men. The implication of this is that novelty plays a special role in the release of oxytocin for males. This hypothesis was strengthened by the finding that environment: when the activities occurred in new settings, oxytocin levels rose more than when they took place in familiar places.

So regardless of our age or gender, the importance of being involved with other people and engaging in interactive activities can help decrease a sense of loneliness and isolation. By building bonds and relationships with the people around us, we will be able to lead happier, healthier lives. And in order to build these bonds, games and activities can be very helpful.

Beacon of LIFE, in Oceanport, NJ, is a government-approved PACE program created to provide seniors, their family, caregivers and professional health care providers the flexibility to meet their health care needs while continuing to live in their community, where they already have relationships.

Beacon of LIFE maintains an interdisciplinary team of professionals who give each client the coordinated care they need. Our staff specialize in working with older people, and work with each client and their family to develop the most effective plan of care.

Our care and services allow people who would otherwise need to live in a nursing home to live where they want — in their own communities, in their own homes.

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