Men are living longer, but are Societal Pressures making them Lonely?
How thoughtful group-based physical activity may offer a unique solution
By Rei Ahn
The evidence is in: older adults who participate in recreational or community programming enjoy positive mental and physical health benefits (Netz et al., 2005). We see that older adults who engage in such programming tend to live longer and are more resilient in the face of age-related changes, such as loss, or declining health (Netz et al., 2005) Despite the benefits, men participate in programs less often than women (Milligan et al., 2013). Does this reluctance to participate contribute to social isolation? Could this lack of participation decrease in mobility in the long run? It’s certainly possible.
If the benefits of recreational and community programming are so clear, why are men not joining? When taking a deeper dive into the possibilities, we know that men and boys are more likely to adopt unhealthy beliefs and behaviours as a means to express their manhood (Courtenay, 2000b). Evidence also suggests that older men tend to not participate in physical and social activities as they do not want to show physical weakness for fear of being perceived as frail (Bredland et al., 2018). To compound the issue, a pervasive narrative in Western society presents men as ‘lone wolves’ who do not require assistance — and thus are expected to be independent, self-reliant, and impervious to pain and illness. Western culture tends to value and celebrate men’s ability to carry these traits of strength and independence into middle and late adulthood (Smith et al., 2007).
But, as we see a shrinking gender gap in life expectancy, and older men are living longer than the previous generations (Nurmi et al., 2018), we need to ask: how can we overcome men’s reluctance to participate and how can we offer the benefits of group-based physical activity and community social programming?
What does it take to shift societal norms to engage older men? Let’s take a look at Thomas and David’s story:
Thomas moved from Calgary, Alberta, to a small town in British Columbia called Invermere. This was a big change – leaving one of Canada’s largest cities for a little town of 3,400 people. It would make anyone worry about being able to make new friends and settle in. On the flip side, David, a longtime resident of Invermere, was looking to become more active but wanted some support. Their paths crossed when they both registered for Choose to Move at the Family Dynamix Association. Choose to Move supports older adults to become and stay more physically active, socially connected and provides access to local resources.
Emily, the Activity Coach at Family Dynamix, was pleasantly surprised to see the two men enrolled. She remarked, “it is always difficult to get men out, socialize and keep active.” One of the strong features of Choose to Move is that it is not prescriptive — the participants can choose what they want to do. With the Activity Coach, participants create a personalized physical activity plan. One activity that both David and Thomas happened to select was a walking club. When they met, they hit-it-off instantly. The pair became fast friends and now attend many other types of events together, from fitness classes to games and socials at the seniors’ centre. David and Thomas are now better connected to their community, a social network, and thus are less at risk of the perils of social isolation. The evidence shows a dose-dependent relationship: the higher the level of isolation, the greater the risk of early mortality (Elmer, 2018).
Thomas and David’s participation illustrates that community programs can help men become more active and connected. But, as Emily points out, it is difficult to engage and involve older men in such programming.
So how can we support the use of community programming to increase physical activity, social connection, and ultimately reduce social isolation in men? As Choose to Move scales-up throughout British Columbia, the Active Aging Research Team is thinking about how to engage diverse populations that community programming often misses, including men and individuals living in rural and remote areas.
Great ideas based on research on how to engage men in community programming include:
1. Community groups specifically for men. A recent study asserts that men are less likely than women to actively form and foster friendships and social connections on their own compared to those that are facilitated by their female partners. Creating ‘men’s only’ groups may create opportunities for men to connect without the reliance on their partners (Nurmi et al., 2018).
2. Place a value on ‘solitude.’ Casual and meaningful social interactions can enhance and encourage physical activity, but men also value “solitude,” (Sims-Gould et al., 2018) which is different from but often mis-labeled as loneliness. Some people just prefer to do things on their own, and it doesn’t mean they are lonely. Perhaps community programming should emphasize both group activities for social connection and opportunities for individual activities for those who value solitude (Sims-Gould et al., 2018).
3. Collaborative program creation. It is always important to remember that good programming can only happen when the target population is included its development. Everyone has different needs and motivations to participate and thus those of us working in health promotion must consult and work with the target population to ensure program design is relevant and meets their needs (Sims-Gould et al., 2018).
In our research, our team demonstrates that social connection with friends and family, whether there are strong or weak ties, can motivate older men to be mobile and become more physically active (Sims-Gould et al., 2018). ‘Choice’ is vital in program design, especially for older men. Selecting an activity that is meaningful based on physical capacity and health status seems to be a key motivator (Thandi et al., 2018). Whether an older man’s choice is to be active with friends or by themselves, we need to make sure that the program design is appealing, and that it adequately meets their needs so that they can reap these benefits.
Since 2015, the Active Aging Research Team and the United Way of the Lower Mainland have been working in partnership to provide community grants that reach diverse communities, building capacity to promote older adult physical activity, social connectedness, independence and health. The Choose to Move program offered by the Family Dynamix Association of Invermere is one of many great examples of how these community grants are changing lives.
Bredland, E. L., Söderström, S., & Vik, K. (2018). Challenges and motivators to physical activity faced by retired men when ageing: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health, 18(1). doi:10.1186/s12889–018–5517–3
Courtenay, W. H. (2000b). Engendering health: A social constructionist examination of men’s health beliefs and behaviors. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 1(1), 4–15.
Milligan, C., Dowrick, C., Payne, S., Hanratty, B., Neary, D., Irwin, P & Richardson, D. (2013). Men’s Sheds and other gendered interventions for older men: improving health and social well-being through social activity. A systematic review and scoping of the evidence base. Lancaster, UK: Lancaster University Centre for Aging Research.
Netz, Y., Wu, M.-J., Becker, B. J., & Tenenbaum, G. (2005). Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being in Advanced Age: A Meta-Analysis of Intervention Studies. Psychology and Aging, 20(2), 272–284. https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-79184.108.40.2062
Nurmi, M. A., Mackenzie, C.S., Roger, K., Reynolds, K. & Urquhart, J. (2018). Older men’s perceptions of the need for and access to male-focused community programmes such as Men’s Sheds. Aging & Society, 38, 794–816.
Sims-Gould, J., Ahn, R., Li, N., Ottoni, C. A., Mackey, D. C., & McKay, H. A. (2018). “The Social Side Is as Important as the Physical Side”: Older Men’s Experiences of Physical Activity. American Journal of Men’s Health, 12(6), 2173–2182. doi:10.1177/1557988318802691
Smith, J. A., Braunack-Mayer, A., Wittert, G., Warin, M. (2007). “I’ve been independent for so damn long!”: Independence, masculinity and aging in a help seeking context. Journal of Aging Studies, 21(4), 325–335.
Thandi, M.K.G., Phinney, A., Oliffe, J.L., Wong, S., McKay, H., Sims-Gould., J. Sahota, S. (2018). Engaging Older Men in Physical Activity: Implications for Health Promotion Practice. American Journal of Men’s Health, 12(6): 2064–2075. doi: 10.1177/1557988318792158.
Elmer, E. M. (2018). Social isolation and loneliness among seniors in Vancouver: Strategies for reduction and prevention. Retrieved from http://www.vancouverseniorsadvisory.ca/wp-content/uploads/Vancouver_seniors_isolation_loneliness_recommendations_May2018.pdf