Ron Schoenberger has plugged into a network each week for 50 years.
Since joining Rotary in 1968, the 83-year-old Spokane, Washington, resident never missed a weekly group meeting. Club members recently honored his milestone.
Based on research, Schoenberger’s regular social connections likely boosted his physical and psychological well-being, buffering against stress and loneliness.
“You walk into room, and you have 50 people who know you,” he said.
Schoenberger is a member of the Greater Spokane Valley Rotary Club after a merger with his initial group, Spokane East Rotary. He’s retired from the insurance industry.
“I feel very young,” he said. “I still own a couple of companies. I work every day. I still play golf. I sleep good. I’m just a happy person. Staying connected, sure, I think that does help.”
Rotary is an international service club of business and professional people. When Schoenberger traveled in the past, he looked up club meeting locations. In unknown places, he found quick welcomes from fellow Rotarians around the United States, Europe and Australia.
While he recovered from two back surgeries, his Spokane group met with him in his home or hospital room. Schoenberger also meets for coffee each morning with friends at a Spokane IHOP.
Studies have found improved health and coping skills among people of any age who are socially engaged — whether it’s close relationships or casual interactions.
Social connections can be found through different channels, including family, work, church, hobbies or community centers. The internet opens up more ways of staying connected, through social media and websites like Meetup.
Overall, it’s the quality of those social interactions that matter, said Sarah Arpin, a Gonzaga University assistant professor of psychology. Her research focuses on social relationships, loneliness and health.
Loneliness is a health risk factor, Arpin said. It is related to the onset of dementia and cognitive decline, cardiovascular issues, and even outranks obesity and smoking in leading to early death, she added.
But while there’s some positive outcome from simply being around other people and face-to-face conversations, the real benefit occurs when interactions are supportive, Arpin added.
“If you have quality relationships where you engage in meaningful interactions with other people, this really provides opportunity for them to provide support to you in times of need, and celebrate positive events,” Arpin said.
“Having other people to share those times with and to cope with adversity is important.”
Conversely, toxic interactions can raise stress levels or lead to poor health.
“If you’re having really crummy interactions, that’s going to negatively impact your health, so just having social ties is not necessarily a positive thing; they need to be positive social ties.”
Also, being social sometimes can seem like song lyrics — feeling lonely in a crowded room — without meaningful interactions, Arpin added.
“Loneliness does not mean you’re objectively isolated. It’s more of a subjective evaluation, so you can have lots of social connections and not feel like you’re connected.”
She suggests finding supportive networks among people who share similar interests and values as one way to gain positive interactions, along with building friendships. Volunteering can be another boost.
“Volunteering can reduce feelings of loneliness because you’re interacting with other volunteers but also you might be finding meaning in offering support and helping others,” Arpin said.
With Rotary, Schoenberger has built relationships often while doing community service. He described feeling connected because of volunteering toward the organization’s causes, from a safety training fire house for families to a global effort to eradicate polio.
For years, he’s organized the club’s corn booth at the Spokane County Interstate Fair. The funds raised go to different causes, including the Spokane Guilds School. But there’s also a sense of community inside the booth, he said.
“One word, camaraderie,” Schoenberger said. “We’ve raised kids in that corn booth.”
Rotary friends also were a lifeline a few years ago after his wife, Shirley, died. They’d been married nearly 57 years.
“When my wife died, there were about 350 people at the funeral; she was a keeper,” he said. “I have two good kids, six grandkids.”
Although many service clubs and fraternal organizations have dwindling membership, Schoenberger is thankful for five decades of weekly Rotary meetings and connections. And he’ll keep going.
“I’m not going to quit until the good Lord tells me I can’t go anymore,” he said.