Humans are social creatures who have spent most of our evolutionary history in small, mutually supportive communities. Isolation once meant you were in danger of lacking food or help when you needed it—or at risk from predators.
These dangers may be less common now, but our bodies still panic in response to loneliness, triggering a stress response that’s terrible for our health and well-being. In fact, research suggests that loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking.
For seniors in particular, loneliness can feel awful. It doesn't matter if you're shy, an introvert, crave lots of alone time, or feel anxious in social situations—you still need people. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a study that has followed participants and their descendants for more than 80 years, suggests that social connectedness may be the biggest predictor of health, happiness, and life expectancy.
Relationships with others can inspire you to make life-affirming choices like spending time outside or becoming more physically active. Everyone can benefit from more social connections, and it’s never too late to reap the rewards.
Senior loneliness is not inevitable. You can take steps to keep your social connections strong. Let’s dig into six strategies to prevent and reverse loneliness in seniors.
1. Revitalize Old Friendships
You likely have lots of connections already—that old college group that used to get together all the time, the neighbor you haven’t seen in forever, and the Facebook friend who keeps saying they want to get together. Sometimes all it takes to prevent senior loneliness is to revitalize old friendships with a regular call, text, or email. This strategy also works for turning acquaintances into friends.
Try some of these relationship revitalization tips:
- Reach out to people who have recently reached out to you.
- Consider whether you have any acquaintances you’d like to get to know better, and send them a message.
- Talk to the people you spend the most time with about planning a regular get-together.
- Check in on family.
2. Connect with Individuals in Your Community
Community is everywhere, if you take the time to see it. You don’t have to overhaul the way you live or make 40 new friends to increase your social fitness. Instead, pay more attention to the people you interact with as part of your daily life. Turn daily encounters and acquaintances into friends.
On a slow day at the coffee shop, you could have a conversation with the barista, or you can ask the grocery store cashier about that interesting pendant they always wear. Cultivate a spirit of warmth and friendliness. You may be surprised by how much friendlier the world seems in return.
Have doubts about this strategy? Science is on the side of chatting up the people around us! One study found that talking to fellow train passengers made people happier even when they didn’t want to do it or didn’t think it would make a difference. Small talk with new people provides the chance to practice social skills. This flexes your social muscles, making you better at relating to and talking with others overall.
3. Remove the Planning and Work
One of the challenges of spending time with others is that it requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work: finding something to do, coordinating when and where to do it, clearing your calendar, and sometimes managing transportation. Some people can spend weeks trying to plan a single outing.
Escape the trap of endless texting and planning with these tips:
- Put recurring activities on your calendar. Consider scheduling a regular lunch or movie date with people who share your interests.
- Don’t forget about virtual plans! A weekly video chat with family can help you connect across geographical distances.
- Sign up for recurring events like book clubs and local classes.
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4. Give Back to Your Community
Volunteering is a great way to connect over shared interests, and it’s a commitment to making the world a better place. It feels good, inspiring a sense of confidence and achievement. Even shy people may find it easier to chat with fellow volunteers because the shared goal of helping others inspires and energizes you.
Ready to get started volunteering in the community? The United Way offers a comprehensive search tool to find volunteer opportunities near you.
5. Join a Social Group
Building meaningful community can be hard, and it requires you to meet lots of people and then bring them together. If community-building isn’t your strong suit, you can still nurture a group built on lasting friendship by joining a ready-made community such as a community service organization or book club.
The best options meet regularly and publicize events so you can show up without a lot of planning. If shyness thwarts your friendship-making efforts, consider joining a community that has an online component, such as a birdwatching group with a message board. Get to know members virtually, then show up in person when you feel comfortable doing so.
Some good groups to consider joining include:
- Environmental organizations such as your local Audubon Society
- Organizations committed to nurturing new skills such as Toastmasters
- Discussion and hobby groups such as book clubs and garden clubs
- Local activist organizations that share your values
- A local veterans organization
6. Live Among Friends
Relationships with neighbors offer a unique opportunity to build a meaningful community because neighbors are so thoroughly integrated into your daily life. You may see them multiple times a day, and if they’re people you love and trust, suddenly your home becomes a village enriched with numerous social connections.
Consider moving closer to loved ones or into a welcoming neighborhood that provides easy opportunities to make friends. For instance, senior living communities can help build lasting relationships. Not only will you live among peers, but you’ll also have access to a wide range of life-enriching activities such as classes, live music, and outings. It’s easy to find a friend, and it’s easier still to find something fun to do with them.
Cultivating Community is an Antidote to Senior Loneliness
The right community can support you to build stronger connections with less effort and planning. That’s because the opportunity for connection, fun, lifetime learning, and so much more are just outside of your door.
You’ve worked hard your entire life. You deserve a community that works for you. Learn more with our free guide, The Holistic Approach to Aging and Health with Senior Living.