illustration of Lois Bowers
Lois Bowers headshot

A study published online last week by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shared the frightening finding that “cognitive functioning may decline at an accelerated rate immediately post-retirement.”

There may be some opportunities for senior living operators to help their retiring workers mitigate this immediate decline, but fewer opportunities probably exist for them to help the older adults who call their communities home. Most senior living residents make moves into communities between the ages of 75 and 84, according to Where You Live Matters, the American Seniors Housing Association’s online information resource for consumers. Workers in general, however, have a median retirement age of 62, according to the 2023 Retirement Confidence Survey by EBRI/Greenwald Research.

A couple of other recent studies, however, hold promise if you’re an operator hoping to help your residents stay sharp and mentally healthy.

One study, presented Thursday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Amsterdam, found that volunteering in late life is associated with better cognitive function — specifically, better executive function and episodic memory.

Volunteering also was associated with a trend toward less cognitive decline over the follow-up time of 1.2 years, the researchers found, and those who volunteered several times per week had the highest levels of executive function. 

Yi Lor, MPH, a doctoral student at the University of California Davis, presented the results at the meeting.

“Volunteering may be important for better cognition in late life and could serve as a simple intervention in all older adults to protect against risk for Alzheimer’s disease and associated dementias,” he said.

Lor said the researchers’ next steps are to examine whether volunteering helps protect against cognitive impairment, and how physical and mental health could play a role.

The results of a second study, published in the journal PLOS ONE on July 5, suggest that programs promoting interaction between senior living residents and children may provide mental health benefits and could help manage common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

The finding comes from research conducted at a retirement community where residents can interact regularly with children who attend an onsite preschool. Activities included playing games, completing puzzles, reading and singing with the children. Some of the study participants had more interactions with the children than others.

The residents completed a questionnaire so that their anxiety and depression levels could be evaluated, and they were asked to describe their experiences with the children.

“Interactions with children promote a sense of belonging and purpose, evoke reminiscence and positively influence the mental well-being of older persons,” researchers Elizabeth Jane Earl and Debbie Marais, PhD, of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, said based on their analysis of the answers.

The study was small — 10 women participated, with four screening as possibly having anxiety, depression or both. The investigators called for larger studies to further explore the potential benefits, but it is encouraging that this study adds to other research already showing positive effects from intergenerational interactions including older adults.

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here.