June 13, 2011

Warding Off Dementia: Reflections on Older Men and Social Interaction

As part of our ongoing series about warding off dementia, last week I discussed research that highlights the power of maintaining strong social networks. My research made me wonder: what role does gender play in seniors' social interaction? Do men and women "do it differently"? Here's what I found:

  • Women tend to have larger social networks and receive support from multiple sources. Men, particularly older men who no longer have their work-related associates, often rely mostly on their wives and their wives' friends for social contacts.
  • Friendships among women are much more likely to involve emotional intimacy. Men tend to shy away from intimacy and emotional bonding. Deterrents to intimate friendships among men include male competitiveness, cultural stereotypes of the "strong, silent real man," and fears of homosexuality.
  • While men may not have intimate friendships, they're not necessarily isolated. Many have "activity" friendships -- the golfing associates, the poker partners, the drinking buddies. Working men develop "convenience" friendships based on the exchange of professional favors. Senior males may have "mentoring" friendships with younger men.
As I thought about the social interactions of retired men I know, I found a difference (again a generalization) between the upwardly striving urban male professional and other men. Let me offer two examples: first, a real person (my brother); next, a composite of several older urban male professionals I know.
  • Recently I went back to my home town -- Ithaca, NY -- for my sister-in-law's memorial celebration. My brother and his wife had an exceptionally strong marriage based on love and friendship, and her death created a painful void for him. But the memorial service confirmed what I already knew: a host of great friends -- men and women -- supported him. He and his wife had spent virtually all their lives in Ithaca. Many of their friends today are old high school classmates. After retiring, my brother strengthened his "activity" friendships through bowling leagues, golf games, and -- yes -- parties. One of his two sons lives close by, and my brother regularly sees his son and his son's family. Yes, my brother is blessed with a strong, supportive social network.
  • Let's call my composite urban professional male Harry. He and his wife are in their 70's. They had lived in Ohio but they moved to the Washington, D.C. area five years ago to be near their son and his family. His wife had a hard time dealing with the move because she was leaving all of her close friends. Harry didn't have this problem because he really didn't have any close friends. His most difficult adjustment had occurred years earlier when he reluctantly retired from his job as Chief Financial Officer of a large corporation. He suddenly experienced identity issues; if he wasn't a CFO any longer, then who WAS he? All the "friends" he thought he had during his working life turned out to be just business associates who quickly faded away. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's several years ago and joined a Parkinson's support group where he is experiencing emotional sharing for the first time. He now realizes that he'd spent most of his life focused only on himself and his career, but now he wants to reach out to others and offer them emotional support. 
I was headed down the same path as Harry. Luckily, at age 50, I came to terms with both my alcoholism and sexual orientation. To maintain my sobriety, I had to learn how to share intimate feelings and concerns with others in my support groups of recovering alcoholics. We often joked that if we attempted the same sort of sharing at cocktail parties or other gatherings of "earth people," they'd surely think we were nuts!
Similarly, in the gay world, solid friendships develop with sharing coming-out stories and other emotional, intimate details. I had hidden emotion, feeling and identity for so long, coming-out was like opening the flood gates. Now, more than thirty years later, I find myself still eagerly opening up to others, simply because it feels good, and because I know my sharing often encourages others to reciprocate. The payoff is immense -- friendship, closeness, trust, support, connection -- even if occasionally I see that look of "too much information" in the eyes of the person sitting across the table from me. I try to be careful. But if all that sharing carries some occasional risk, it's one I've found well worth taking.


Grant said...

Interesting. Any idea whether, as a result of these interaction differences, women suffer dementia less than men, or at least later?

John Schappi said...

Very good and interesting question, Grant.  I want to take time to research this.  I'll probably report my findings in a separate post rather than as a reply to you since I suspect others have the same question.

Tndowner said...

We are spending our morning reading past posts.  I'm just amazed at what has fallen into our laps this day..  Thank you John.