Invest Wisely

The late Gene D. Cohen, a gerontologist at George Washington University, came up with a simple but brilliant concept to help all of us stay engaged with life as we age. The concept is the “social portfolio,”[1] and it looks something like this:

Gene D. Cohen’s Social Portfolio

 Group EffortsIndividual Efforts
High Mobility/ High EnergyYour activities listYour activities list
Low Mobility/ Low EnergyYour activities listYour activities list

What does this mean? Simply put, you can think of your activities much the way you think of your financial investments. A savvy investor plans a financial portfolio with four things in mind: liquidity, diversification, emergency funds, and long-term growth. Just as you are wise to diversify your investments, so too are you wise to diversify your activities and interests. The reason for diversification is similar to an investment portfolio as well: some of your activities can go badly over time, much as some of your investments can. Think of the social portfolio as a kind of “insurance” in the form of vital activities that can be engaged in even in the face of disability or loss.

The same four concepts that make a good financial portfolio apply to our lifetime investments in relationships and activities. As you read the following, note also that a sound social portfolio balances individual with group activities, high-energy with low-energy endeavours, and high-mobility with low-mobility activities[2]:

  1. You need to have liquidity—hobbies, interests, and relationships to which you can easily gain access. These might include gardening, woodworking, painting, photography, cooking, reading, playing the piano, researching your family history, meditation—things that you may enjoy doing on your own. They may also include book clubs, choirs, theatre groups, walking groups, golf, curling, playing bridge, helping at a soup kitchen, working at the food bank, serving in a local service club or on a church committee—things you enjoy doing with others. Some of these activities require more physical energy while others require less. I have some boomer friends who play ice hockey every Sunday morning before church. I have another friend whose struggles with arthritis do not allow her to exercise or garden the way she used to do. Now she plants box gardens and does water walking at the local YM-YWCA.

Putting together an effective social portfolio takes time and thought. For this reason, Cohen recommended that it should be done with others who know you well. It needs to be noted, too, that one size does not fit all. Extroverts may find it more challenging to engage in solo activities, but having hobbies you can pursue on your own can ease the disappointment that comes when an important social event is cancelled due to inclement weather – or worse: COVID-19! More importantly, they can also be richly rewarding.

On the other hand, introverts (and only twenty five percent of us are true introverts[3]) may find it more challenging to engage in regular social gatherings. Their social portfolios may include fewer large group activities and involve only a few close friends. But as Susan Pinker points out, “being human, introverts still need people.”[4] Indeed, their very health depends on it. As she notes, “the evidence tells us that introverts have a greater risk of dying from cancer, and even an increased susceptibility to catching colds, if they hunker down alone.”[5]

Just as many of us need to force ourselves to build in time for physical exercise, so also must those of us who are more introverted make a real effort to spend time with others. Moreover, one social outlet is not enough. As Pinker writes:

You may be married to the person of your dreams. But if he or she is the only person you feel close to and confide in, you’re one person away from having no one at all. Immunologically speaking, you’re almost naked.[6] I saw this happen with my father when my mother died. She was really his only social contact, and because of this, his already intense grief was greatly compounded. He eventually just faded away. The only time I saw his face light up again was during a brief stay in hospital. Although he had private coverage, the only bed that was available was in the ward. Dad loved it because he finally had other people with whom to converse. When a private room eventually became available, it was no surprise to my brother and me that he declined it. He now had people with whom to chat and visit.

[1] Gene D. Cohen, The Creative Age. Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (New York: Quill, Harper Collins, 2001), 265.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Press, 2014), p. 292.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6] Pinker, p. 291.

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