Remember how easy it was to make friends when you were younger? There were endless opportunities to develop new relationships: high school clubs, college classes, new jobs, PTA meetings, the neighborhood block party. But as adults age, social networks start to shrink and there are fewer opportunities to socialize.
Now there’s a compelling reason to be a more socially active older adult: new research shows that social isolation and loneliness can have a significant negative impact on our health, increasing our risk of premature death. However, the study, presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, included some good news, too. Researchers found that greater social connections are linked with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.
So, it is wise to take steps to maintain ties to family and friends, or help your aging parents expand their social circles, says Dr. Nora O’Brien, executive director of Willow Towers Assisted Living and Willow Gardens Memory Care at United Hebrew of New Rochelle. “No matter what age or stage of life we are in, it’s important to have people around to support and engage us,” says Dr. O’Brien. “At United Hebrew, we believe that making the effort to stay connected makes us happier; now we know that it will help us live longer, too.”
6 Steps You Can Take to Stay Socially Active
1. Try something new.
At age 90, Millicent Freedman is writing poetry, attending musical performances, exercising and dining with friends threetimes a day—all new activities for her in the last few years. “When I lived alone in my 10-room house, I wasn’t very social. Now I walk and do Zumba,” says Ms. Freedman, a resident of Willow Towers. “You have to be open to new things.”
Dr. O’Brien agrees. “One of the best parts of getting older is having more time to explore new interests,” she adds. “If you have always wanted to try yoga, why not now? You may develop a new hobby, and expand your circle along the way.”
2. Be a joiner.
Many communities have senior centers that offer an array of clubs, classes, and activities. In Westchester County, the Department of Senior Programs and Services website includes links to senior centers throughout the county, plus a calendar of county-wide events of interest to seniors. Local centers such as the Hugh Doyle Senior Center in New Rochelle hosts classes and clubs in computer skills, arts, exercise, and more. There’s even a vacation club, with day and overnight trips to suit a variety of tastes.
At Willow Towers, “Resident Ambassadors” help new residents identify programs from the assisted living facility’s calendar of activities that suit their tastes, according to Deborah King, director of recreation.
“We have residents who enjoy reading the day’s news, and have joined our New York Times discussion group. Residents who love food join our gourmet cooking or dining out club,” says Ms. King. “There’s really something for everyone, and our Ambassadors help to facilitate those connections so well.”
3. Pursue — and share — your passions.
It pays to speak up about your passions, says Ms. King. “We have a resident who loved a good game of bridge. When she moved into Willow Towers, the Ambassadors introduced her to other card players in the community. More residents joined the group, a local expert from the Westchester Bridge Association provided some lessons, and now we have a Bridge Club.”
If you have an expertise, look for ways to share it, adds Ms. King, who described how Albert Fields, a former history teacher, shared his passion for history with her. He ended up teaching a history class on the Golden Age of Radio to his fellow Willow Towers residents, and has plans to teach other subjects in the future. Community centers and continuing education centers may be surprisingly receptive to what you can offer.
4. Get moving.
Ms. Freedman had never tried Zumba before moving into Willow Towers, and she says it has helped keep her agile and make new friends. “It’s never too late to start,” she says, adding that she also participates in the assisted living facility’s Walking Club.
If you or your parent lives at home, look into senior fitness programs in the area. Many senior centers offer exercise classes and many health insurance plans offer a “Silver Sneakers” membership. “There’s no doubt that exercising helps our cardiovascular health,” says Dr. O’Brien, “and when done with a friend, it can make for a happier disposition as well.”
Volunteering your time is a great way to stay socially active. Organizations such as Volunteer New York! can help you identify the right volunteer opportunity in your community. At United Hebrew, residents can join the organization’s campus-wide Community Service Club, which meets monthly. Past projects include making blankets and activity books for families at a local women’s shelter.
6. To make a friend, be a friend.
If you’re not accustomed to putting yourself out there, or your friend-making skills have gotten rusty, fear not, says Dr. O’Brien. “You are not alone in that feeling,” she says, “and sometimes you just need to make the first move. Call up a neighbor. Invite someone for a walk or lunch. Volunteer to help. Sometimes a smile is the only nudge one needs to make a new friend.”