It’s been said people are wired for emotional connecting and that having a robust social network enhances both physical and mental health. This priority of connecting doesn’t stop as we grow older. In fact, much evidence suggests it becomes even more important. And yet it can also be more challenging.
One reason is that our connections later in life are prone to dwindle. We retire and leave our work network. Health issues reduce the range of activities we can take part in. Individuals who have comprised our network of connections start passing away. Transportation may be lacking where needed to allow us to join others. Perhaps circumstances force us to relocate from where we’ve lived for years, taking us out of that neighborhood network. An estimated 17% of adults age 65 and older are identified as isolated rather than connected, according to AARP. (Note: AARP is an AgeWise Colorado Provider.)
The toll this takes is significant. A recent “Senior Report” from the United Health Foundation looked at the results of widespread isolation due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic. It found increases in suicides, depression, and other mental distresses among older adults. The behavioral health measures specifically in Colorado found troubling incidence of suicide and excessive alcohol consumption among those 65 and older. More than one analysis has concluded isolation can be as perilous to health as routine smoking.
Techniques and tips to reduce isolation
Myriad ways of minimizing isolation have graced various media. A 2018 Older Americans Act Report to Congress found community support services to be beneficial. Older clients going to congregate meal sites or receiving home-delivered meals said such services helped them live independently while providing social contacts.
USAging is a national association that describes itself as supporting the national network of Area Agencies on Aging and helping older adults live with optimal health, well-being, independence and dignity in their homes and communities. (Note: Several Area Agencies on Aging in Colorado are AgeWise Providers.) USAging notes that one in four Americans aged 55 and older volunteers, providing an excellent avenue not only for making connections but also for giving older volunteers an enhanced sense of dignity and worth.
A feature article in US News & World Report suggested these steps as ways to reduce isolation:
Expand your social network before retirement. Because those who socialize on a regular basis before they retire are more likely to maintain at least some of those relationships in retirement.
Form connections outside of work. Sure, you interact with colleagues, customers or clients every day, but also expand your social circle to people who aren’t associated with your job. It’s no secret people who retire can be caught off guard by the sudden drop in social connections. Think about how to replace work connections with other “colleagues” in volunteer activities, civic organizations, golf groups, bridge clubs, etc.
Volunteer. Your job likely defined a key role in your life. You could benefit from a successor role that also gives your life purpose. Volunteering can be a vital antidote to loneliness.
Maintain your relationship with your spouse. Among its many attributes, marriage provides a measure of protection against loneliness. Just ask older adults who are widowed, divorced or separated. But even married older adults sometimes feel lonely unless they maintain a quality relationship.
Cultivate relationships with your children and grandchildren. This also can help you avoid a sense of isolation. Retirees generally prioritize spending quality time with their grandchildren. In addition, adult children can be a valuable source of socializing, and providing help with errands and transportation when you need it.
Join a group. People who participate at least weekly in a group—perhaps religious services, a regular volunteer assignment or frequent socializing with friends—are less likely to report feeling lonely.
Think twice about moving. You may have dreams about living near the beach or the mountains, but leaving your family and friends behind can lead to isolation, and it can be challenging to form new connections in retirement.
Kiplinger echoes much of what US News had to say, including the idea of doing social networking as part of retirement planning. They call it building social capital. Kiplinger offered these additional suggestions:
- Take a second look at the local senior center. Some are remaking their outdated images, with gourmet cooking classes, wine tastings, meditation exercises, and more. There are more than 11,000 senior centers in the U.S., with varying services (find one at NCOA.org).
- Seek out other socializing alternatives such as coffees, lectures, writers’ groups, choir ensembles, karaoke nights, etc. (Another possibility these days is joining the hot new sport of pickleball.)
- Those who are homebound can listen in by phone or webinar or Zoom to live discussions on topics that help them with practical matters or that are just interesting to them.
- If you’re older and alone, make an effort to build an old-fashioned social network in your neighborhood. Ask your neighbors about their grandchildren. Invite someone to go walking. Volunteer to read to a neighbor’s kids.
“You have to be proactive,” says the National Council on Aging. Have a mindset of “If I don’t make new friends, I’m just not going to have any.”
Keys to effective communicating
Under the umbrella of AARP is a program called Connect2Affect (C2A). As its name implies, it is designed to make connections that are meaningful—that affect your life and/or others’ lives for the better.
C2A says “isolation is more than being alone — it’s being detached physically or psychologically or feeling disconnected from friends and family.” But “social connections can help you experience fewer mental and physical health issues as you grow older. Not only does talking with others keep your brain sharp, relationships can give you a sense of belonging that makes a lasting impact on the quality of your life.”
C2A lays out a number of practical steps to consider as ways to help build and nurture connectedness. They include the following:
Meet new people. Routines have their place, but they can turn into ruts.Trying a new hobby or volunteering can lead to more chances to develop friendships.
Reconnect with loved ones. Catching up with old friends or family you haven’t seen for a while can reduce isolation and also be a real mood lifter.
Start journaling. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can improve both your mental and physical health, plus help you understand relationships better.
Explore what friendship means to you. Widening your social circle starts with understanding what you really need from a friend. Look for people with these important qualities to help you determine the kinds of friends you’d like in your life.
How to make “talking with others” work for you
The “talking with others” mentioned by C2A may sound simple enough, but to be meaningful and productive it requires attention and care. For one thing, it may be the first or primary bridge to easing isolation. C2A recommends keeping the following priorities and ideas in mind:
Have conversation starters in your mental file. Sometimes the hardest part of reaching out is knowing what to say. Try keeping a mental file of questions and topics to start or keep conversations flowing. Ask about books, for instance, or about movies, music, or TV shows. Talk about favorite foods and recipes, hobbies, work activities, travels. Families can be fertile subject matter; pets too. Invite opinions. Offer compliments.
Be an active listener. If engaging in conversation stresses you out, sharpening your active listening skills may be just what you need to gain confidence and feel more at ease. Learn how to use listening techniques to improve your communication.
Watch your nonverbals. Active listening goes hand in hand with several nonverbal communicating techniques. Here are a few to keep in mind:
Maintain eye contact. Though it may feel a little strange, direct eye contact is a nonverbal cue that shows you’re interested in what the other person is saying. The same holds true for video chats — keep your camera on and look at the screen.
Stay in the moment. Limit distractions when talking with others, whether on the phone or in person. Obviously turn off the TV and radio. Resist the urge to daydream.
Watch body language. Smiling, nodding, tilting your head — these all let people know you’re engaged in the conversation.
Watch your verbals too. There are a number of dos and don’ts to keep in mind:
Offer encouragement. Nod so the other person knows you’re listening. Respond with simple phrases that drive a point home: “Yes,” “I get that,” “Ain’t that the truth,” etc.
Don’t interrupt. It is often seen as disrespectful and distracting.
Paraphrase back. People know you’re paying attention to what they’re saying when you reflect it back to them. Try saying, “What I’m hearing is…” or “Let me see if I’m following you…,” and summarize the speaker’s main points.
Ask questions. Relevant questions keep conversations flowing. E.g., “What was that like?” or “Tell me more.”
Clarify for understanding. Ask questions if you’re unsure what the other person is saying. E.g., “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Could you please explain more?”
Remain nonjudgmental. Especially when you disagree with someone, wait until the speaker is finished before expressing your thoughts. This also gives you time to be tactful in expressing your own opinion.
For many seniors, it can be a tall order to keep isolation at bay. Not surprising, since isolation is a formidable—sometimes relentless—enemy, a threat to your happiness, confidence, optimism, and even your health and life. The good news is you have many strategies at your disposal to create and sustain connections that can fight off that foe. The right connections will make you victorious in that effort.