May 9, 2018 — Maybe it is just timing, but we seem to be having more and more interactions with people who are very lonely. A widower and good friend admitted that, after feeling sorry for himself, he broke one of his own rules and went out to a bar by himself for a beer and pizza. Just this weekend we ran into an old friend, also a widower, who was visibly very upset. He was near tears as he described how he can’t seem to meet anyone that he would like to spend time with. Even on this site last week we had a post from a Member expressing her helplessness after the sudden loss of her husband. Almost three quarters of Americans have feelings of loneliness, according to a survey by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association. As many as one-third say they have those feelings at lease once a week.
That long anticipated retirement – too often ruined by loneliness
We spend so much psychic energy planning for retirement. We carefully save money, think about where we are going to retire, and plan for all the fun things we will do to enjoy it. But for far too many people, loneliness ruins all that planning and anticipation. Men in particular have trouble. No longer working, they lose their major source of social contact. In most cases, we feel alone because we don’t have a partner. Either the partner has died, sometimes all too suddenly, or we are divorced, or for whatever reason, just haven’t found or want a partner. America’s senior population continues to increase, and a large number of us are single. According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, 55% of women and 28% of men over 65 state they were unmarried.
Sometimes we might feel lonely even if we have a partner. Maybe we can’t connect any more, or are feeling alienated, or we wake up one day and realize we don’t have any one that we care enough about to talk to. Studies have shown that having no one to share experiences and daily life with can be harmful to our mental and our physical well-being.
Zero new friends
Retirement should be the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones, travel to places we have dreamed of, and have all kinds of opportunities for new experiences and friends. Ironically though, this is also a time where people find their social network begins to shrink. In a recent proprietary study by Shea Homes®, surveying over 1,000 home shoppers above the age of 50 nationwide, 37 percent say they have made zero new friends over the past year. In addition, 46 percent stated their social network has dwindled due to friends moving from their neighborhood and over 60 percent would like to live in a community where they know their neighbors.
The Washington Post reported on research that shows that a “lack of social connection and the feeling of loneliness and isolation is as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”. It has also been implicated as a risk factor for maladies such as cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and obesity. It’s even a factor for something as simple as the common cold and back spasms. Another study from the AARP study showed that people who are are very socially isolated influence spend $130 per month more in Medicare than others.
So I am lonely, what can I do about it?
Dr. Jennifer Caudle, an assistant professor of family medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Stratford, New Jersey had some interesting ideas on this subject. Those, along with some other suggestions, are presented below:
To limit loneliness, Dr. Caudle recommends some simple steps to help increase real social engagement:
Consider a digital cleanse. Social networks can offer real connections, but the curated platforms may over-emphasize the success of others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. If you are feeling inadequate or overwhelmed, cut back or eliminate your online activity for a while.
Exercise with others. Participating in a running club, exercise class, or team sport can have dual benefits, creating opportunities to meet new people while also improving physical health. Many sports stores, churches and community groups offer free weekly activities including fun walks and yoga. Plus, exercising as little as 10 minutes a day or 1 hour a week has been shown to increase happiness
Buy local. Developing a routine that includes visiting a local shopkeeper, coffee shop, farmers’ market or gym builds roots in the community. Creating relationships with local vendors can lead to a sense of shared history and camaraderie.
Step out of your comfort zone. Introducing yourself to nearby neighbors or engaging with people in the building elevator—while initially uncomfortable—can begin the process of developing community and has the added bonus of alleviating loneliness for others.
Move to a community with more neighbors. The contrast between living in a suburban neighborhood by yourself and an active community is amazing. In the former you might be lucky to wave to a neighbor, while in a 55+, independent, or condo community you will probably interact with neighbors all day. You will quickly have your pick of people that you might want to spend more time with.
Get a pet. The first friends we made in Key West came from walking the dog. Pets are automatic conversation starters – the next thing you know you are part of a new social network.
Make an effort to reconnect with people from your past that you really enjoyed. Whether it is a school chum, relative, army buddy, neighbor, or work colleague; restarting that connection could be a really good thing.
Travel. There are many travel companies that specialize in trips for single people. Or perhaps you have an old, or a new friend that would be fun to travel with. A new adventure offers a shared experience that frequently leads to new friendships.
Look for a new activity. Every community has groups that sponsor hikes, bike trips, hobbies, book clubs, bridge or card nights. The people who you will meet have more common interests than you will expect.
Take a class. Why not learn Spanish, computer skills, gardening, cooking, etc. Guaranteed you’ll have fun and meet some nice folks.
Everyone in retirement should be looking for ways to make new friends, because no one knows how your life might change. Your spouse could die, divorce you, or have a health condition that makes you a full-time caregiver. Men, who tend to rely on their wives to manage their social lives, have to work even harder to make friends. Practice your skills at meeting new people and your life will be richer, no matter what twists of fate await you.
For further reading
Retired Mens’ Greatest Health Risk (many great Comments)
5 Warning Signs You Aren’t Mentally Prepared for Retirement
The Loneliness of the Elderly (NY Times)
Loneliness Is a Disease That Can Be Treated (Washington Post)
Many Americans Are Lonely (CBS News)
Comments? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.