Engaging Older Introverts in Senior Communities
Amy Neu, MSW, LCSW
The decision to move from home into a senior community is a difficult one. The transition is filled with mixed emotions such as relief, sadness of leaving home and the memories and security that are attached to it, and hope for living in a new community with extra support. For many introverts, the pressure to engage in the new community also adds anxiety and uncertainties about their ability to socialize “like everyone else.” How do we help our introverted residents and loved ones engage in their communities?
To best help, we first need to understand what we mean by the words introvert and extrovert. In short, introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation they need to function well. Introverts generally do better in environments with less stimulation, such as one-on-one conversations or small group activities. Extroverts, on the other hand, enjoy the stimulation that comes from larger groups or places with a lot of activity. Introverts recharge through spending time alone. This time helps them to regain energy and a feeling of balance within themselves. Extroverts gather energy from being active with others and generally find time alone less satisfying.
Senior communities throughout the continuum of care provide wonderful opportunities for engagement, socialization, and fun. These are generally offered to the entire community, are therefore provided in a large group, and everyone is encouraged to attend. For older introverts, the thought of attending these group activities is daunting. Working up the energy to get up and go to a large event is taxing. Attending the activity and socializing is enjoyable; however, the energy output for introverts during these activities is sizable.
Furthermore, many older introverts (who have spent a lifetime perfecting their introspective and reflection skills) will often reflect on each event when they return to their rooms, at times judging or questioning their own socialization abilities. At a time in life when so much security has been lost, many older introverts find themselves feeling unsure or inadequate during this period. Many introverted clients make comments such as: “The other residents have so many good stories. I must look so dumb not talking;” “I wish I didn’t say that. Everyone must think I’m losing it!” or “Everyone else has a good time. What is wrong with me?” It is difficult for us as family members, staff, and caregivers to watch our introverted loved ones lose their confidence and withdraw.
Here are several tips and strategies to help our introverted residents and loved ones engage in their community:
- Take time to talk one-on-one and truly listen to the individual’s interests, hobbies, and preferences.
- Encourage them to attend “low-risk” group activities such as a game night where residents play in smaller groups (i.e. bridge, Mahjong, or working on a large puzzle) or a movie night. These kinds of activities foster an environment that is less overwhelming for introverts while providing an opportunity for socialization.
- Offer ideas of how to make larger group activities more manageable for introverts. Some common strategies include:
1) Find a space toward the edge of the activity if possible (this way you are not surrounded by noise and people);
2) Break this large group into a smaller group for yourself (i.e. begin a conversation with one individual rather than enter yourself into a group of 10);
3) Give yourself permission to leave the activity if it becomes too much for you (this can be a short break to a quiet bathroom or you can go back to your room).
- Help residents to identify their individual strengths as introverts. Our society praises extroversion as the ideal. While many of us individually know the strengths of introverts in our own lives, our culture as a whole promotes and often rewards the loudest in our culture. Introverts are often left to feel “less than” or not as good as their extroverted counterparts throughout their lives.
- Recognize that introverts need time alone. If the older introvert in your life is content to spend time alone, respect that need. Offer resources and activities they are able to do alone in their apartment. Realize that introverts needing time alone is not necessarily a sign that they are depressed and adjusting poorly. Time alone may be just what they need to adjust to their new environment.
In our senior communities, we continue to unintentionally reward the more extroverted residents – i.e. lightheartedly banter with them, encourage them to take leadership positions in the community – and wonder what is wrong with our quieter residents. Our introverted residents, in turn, internalize these situations, and question or berate themselves for not being outgoing enough. It is so easy for us to overlook these residents or label them as shy, unfriendly, or standoffish. However, once we take the time to talk with them individually, we can connect and help them to see their benefits as an introvert. Common strengths among introverts include strong listening skills, wonderful skills of observation, the ability to contemplate and reflect on meaningful topics, and the ability to connect deeply with other individuals.
Introversion and extroversion are just a small part of what makes up a whole personality, and there is a great deal of variation within introverts and extroverts. For those who would like to learn more, the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain is highly recommended. It explores the topic of introversion in depth, is very empowering for introverts, and provides insight for extroverts to understand their introverted loved ones.
If you do have concerns about yourself, your loved one, or a resident adjusting poorly, first talk to them about it. Share your concerns and reassure them that you want them to be happy and feel secure in their new home. If your concerns continue, contact a clinical social worker or therapist who specializes in older adult issues. A professional can conduct an assessment, identify a plan for treatment if warranted, and conduct individual therapy sessions to process the events and emotions in their lives.
Amy Neu, MSW, LCSW specializes in serving the elderly and disabled, along with their families and caregivers. She has significant experience counseling families within medical systems and during transitional periods from home to alternate levels of care.