How to stay social and connected

Far too often society brushes aside loneliness and social isolation as inevitable parts of aging. In reality, they are perilous issues, thought to increase one’s risk of things such as dementia, depression, and cardiovascular disease. Here’s how to protect yourself against loneliness as you age.

A common problem

Lana Adams never really experienced loneliness until she hit her seventies; for 68-year-old Uli Novak, it was when he retired. “I suddenly had all these empty days to fill,” Novak recalls. “I missed the daily banter with colleagues—and feeling needed and productive.”

Adams’ and Novak’s stories are all too common. Although having fewer social connections as one ages contributes to loneliness, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Things including loss of touch and intimacy, illness or disability, and bereavement of loved ones can all play a role. Pervasive ageist attitudes also contribute, as many seniors feel pushed to the periphery of society.

And existential questions—such as “how is my life important?”—can also crop up. “I want this chapter of my life to be about more than just keeping busy,” says 73-year-old Barbara Hylton, who knows she’s not alone in this sentiment.

There are no quick fixes to eradicate loneliness and isolation, and addressing these issues needs to occur at a widespread, systemic level. At the same time, smaller-scale, meaningful solutions to prevent and treat loneliness do exist.

Consider a pet

Studies suggest that the human-animal bond is a powerful one; it can decrease things such as blood pressure and stress and protect against cognitive decline in older adults.

Nurture a positive mindset

One study found that keeping a daily list of three positive events decreased stress in adults aged 60 and over.

Foster intergenerational connections

Research shows that when kids get regular care and attention from older adults, they have fewer emotional and behavioral problems. Older individuals also reap the benefits; studies show that regularly involved grandparents experience decreased risk of depression, cognitive decline, and mortality.

Build a support network

Having more hobbies and increased contact with friends and family reduces loneliness across age, gender, and other lifestyle factors. Combining social interaction with physical activity may be especially effective.

Of course, socializing can be taxing if one is suffering from illness or disability, which can severely limit daily activities. Virtual alternatives—such as online support groups or messaging programs—can combat some of the impacts of loneliness for those with limitations.

Give back

When Hylton started volunteering with a seniors’ support program a couple years ago, it gave her a sense of purpose. “I like connecting with people older than I am, playing cards together or helping them out, and just sharing our stories,” she says.

The health benefits of volunteerism are well documented, including its positive impact on longevity.

By Dr. Amy Green