Combatting loneliness in our later years

Barb: In the workplace, people come in contact with others on a regular basis and have, probably, many interactions daily. Then we go to a situation where your significant other is your only source of interaction, and if you are not married, it is highly possible that your only daily interactions are with the grocery store clerk. Is anyone studying what this does to people? Is anyone making significant inroads in insisting that we not isolate ourselves? Going from a busy workplace to a senior center does not cut it, at least not for me. Can you please watch out for and write about how retired people are getting together to counter boredom and isolation? I’m seeking a “better than bingo” solution.

Phil Moeller: Thanks for raising the issue of loneliness. There is a lot of behavioral research on loneliness. Google Scholar, which tracks research papers, returned more than 1.1 million hits on “loneliness” when last I searched in late 2021.

A leading behavioral psychologist told me several years ago that the health effects of loneliness are comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day!

There is no doubt that being cut off from others can produce devastating health effects, including shortened lives. Becoming less active in retirement, for example, is widely cited as a serious health issue. And with rising numbers of older Americans, growing life spans and the weakening of family structures, more seniors are living alone and facing the challenges of being isolated. A leading behavioral psychologist told me several years ago that the health effects of loneliness are comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day!

Combating loneliness takes planning and work, and women generally are much better at this than men. While few would question the need for making long-term financial and even health care retirement plans, there is relatively little formal emphasis on making long-term plans for getting and staying involved in multiple social activities. Yet, like Barb, we know that the odds for leading a satisfying later life are higher when we have shared interests with other people and things to do with friends.

The health benefits of social interaction can radiate out in relationship “rings,” beginning with tight family and friendship ties and extending out to part-time work, volunteering, religious groups and other group activities, including even interacting with strangers. That Starbucks barista who cheerfully makes your morning coffee can literally be better for your health than the proverbial apple a day.

As seniors age, it becomes increasingly important to develop and have friendships and social interactions with younger people. They can connect you with new ideas and activities, as well as countering the tendency for people to experience a bittersweet and isolating legacy of aging — outliving their friends.

Social media sites are making it easier than ever to discover other people who share your interests. These connections can range from relatively impersonal community events to much stronger bonding commitments. Affinity retirement communities, for example, are popping up everywhere, drawing groups of like-minded seniors. Whatever you like, there are other people near you who like the same things.

I wrote extensively about longevity and loneliness several years ago, in pieces for U.S. News & World Report. Here is an article about loneliness research. Next Avenue, a great site for seniors, has published several good pieces. Go to the site and search on loneliness to see them.