As we age, staying socially connected with family, friends, and our community is vitally important to our mental and physical health.
According to America’s Health Rankings, if we’re socially isolated in our later years, we’re at greater risk of experiencing poor health, including conditions like dementia and stroke. Odds are we’ll die sooner, too.
On the other hand, having social connections helps us get out of the home and move our bodies more often, keeping us from losing mobility and becoming physically isolated. We’re at less risk of dementia. And if we do run into health issues, we’re more likely to get proper medical attention with our friends’ encouragement.
Of course, staying socially connected is about more than just avoiding poor health. It’s about feeling good about ourselves. It’s about knowing we matter to someone. And it’s about finding purpose in our lives.
Figure out what’s important to you
Making new friends can be a challenge, particularly if you’re among the 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 living alone. It means putting yourself out there. And it may take you outside your comfort zone.
But remember: the rewards are worth it.
It’s helpful to have a plan, though. Start by figuring out what’s important to you.
To get the ball rolling, here are a few questions you can ask yourself.
If you’re trying to help someone like an older parent make social connections, you may find it helpful to ask them these questions. Don’t assume you know the answers. Sometimes, it’s all too easy to confuse what’s important to you with what’s important to them.
Who do you want to hang out with? It could be that you’d like to make friends with people your own age with similar interests. Or maybe you’d rather spend your time with younger people who could benefit from your wisdom and experience. Be patient. It may take a while to “find your tribe.”
What brings you joy or satisfaction? People often connect around an activity. Do you enjoy creating things (e.g. crafts, writing, building something), competing (e.g. sports, games, contests), helping others (e.g. mentoring, volunteering), or simply doing something as a group (e.g. exercising, sharing food, talking about things you’ve read or shows you’ve seen)?
What do you have to offer? The most meaningful relationships are reciprocal, meaning there’s give and take. Maybe you’re bringing your knowledge or skills. Or maybe you’re bringing your own unique outlook on life, your sunny disposition, your attention to detail, or your sense of humour. They’re all valuable. Don’t sell yourself short. Hang out with people who value what you have to offer.
Ways to stay connected
There are lots of ways to form meaningful relationships. Here are just a few:
Pick a cause you’d like to support and then give your time to it. Maybe you’d like to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, or a local hospice, or a theatre group, or a social club, or a business association. The choices are almost endless. Search online to find organizations that are looking for volunteers or ask around.
You may want to come up with a few different choices. It’s possible that the first organization you approach has all the volunteers they need right now or is looking for help with things you’re not comfortable doing.
Volunteering for a cause you believe in can give you a deeper sense of purpose by making you feel part of something that’s bigger than yourself.
Offer your services for free
If you’re retired, you could give your services away for free. For instance, if you were an accountant, you could help a select number of people do their taxes at no charge. Or if you worked in the trades, you could help a community group build a playground.
This is a little different from volunteering for an organization. You’re your own boss. And you get to choose the people you help.
Chances are you’re good at doing something. It could be something you used to do for a living. Or it could be a hobby. You don’t have to be the world’s leading expert on the topic. There’s bound to be someone who can learn something from you.
Sharing knowledge or teaching a skill – whether it’s to someone your own age or younger – can be deeply satisfying. It can give you a sense that you’re passing on a part of yourself that will be around long after you’re gone.
Learn something new
Some people use retirement as an opportunity to pursue interests they previously didn’t have time for. Maybe you’d like to learn how to play golf or pickleball. Or improve your cooking skills. Or learn to dance. Or write fiction. Heck, some people get university degrees after they retire.
The point is it’s never too late to learn, no matter what some people might tell you. And if you’re learning as part of a group, it’s a great opportunity to make friends with people who have similar interests as you.
Do something just for fun with other people
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with simply having some fun. There are lots of recreational activities that can help you stay connected, things like exercise classes, craft groups, social clubs, sports (either as a participant or a fan) – you name it.
The main thing is to use them as a chance to connect with other people. Remember not to get too caught up in the activity itself. Being part of a community is just as important.
Challenge your assumptions
If you’re thinking “that all sounds good, but I don’t think it’s for me,” it may be because you think there are obstacles standing in your way that are too difficult to overcome. If that’s the case, be sure to challenge your assumptions.
For instance, you may have dementia or know someone who does. Dementia can be socially isolating, but it doesn’t have to be, particularly in the early stages. In fact, staying socially connected is even more important in these circumstances.
People with dementia may shy away from social situations because they’re worried they’re not up to it or they may humiliate themselves. And these worries are understandable. The trick is to find groups that don’t judge and that understand what dementia is about, spaces where allowances are made and people – whatever their abilities – are welcome.
And believe it or not, those places really do exist.
The same is true if you’re worried your physical limitations may prevent you from enjoying activities you’ve enjoyed in the past. With a little creativity, activities can usually be adapted so that you can still participate and continue to feel part of a group.
The big takeaway: if there’s an obstacle that’s keeping you from staying socially connected, more often than not there’s a way of overcoming it. It’s usually just a matter of finding the right group with the right attitude.
Where we live can have a big impact on our social connections
It can take a lot of sustained effort to stay socially connected if you’re living on your own. That’s why some people opt to move to retirement communities.
Here are some reasons why:
There are more opportunities to naturally “bump into” people
If you’re part of a meal plan, you don’t have to worry so much about eating alone
Most communities have lots of social activities to choose from; you don’t have to hunt for them yourself
Activity staff take care of a lot of the logistics, eliminating any organizational hassles; all you have to do is participate
Most communities cater to residents with different abilities and will usually find a way to include you if you have some sort of limitation
Of course, retirement communities aren’t all the same. Some may have activities that more closely align with your interests. Or the people who live there may be a better social fit for you. It’s important to get a sense for this before choosing one.
That’s where we can help. At Tea and Toast, we know all about retirement communities in the Ottawa area and how they differ from one another. We can quickly identify which communities are likely to be a good fit for you – and which aren’t.
It will save you hours of research. And we can often give you insights that may be difficult to get on your own.