400 Friends and No One to Call spells out the how-tos for befriending our wider community, building a social safety net, and fostering our sense of belonging.
For many of us, retirement is the time in our lives to invest in relationships with friends and loved ones. But while we may have had high hopes for what our retired life might look like, it often does not meet our expectations. Instead, many of us might be surprised to feel disappointed, lost, or lonely. Maybe our hopes for events long dreamed of – perhaps reunions with our long-lost cousins or road trips with our best friends - weren’t realized. But, while we may be surprised to feel disheartened and lonely, these feelings are extremely common in retirement.
If we feel lonely despite having regular contact with others, we are in good company. According to a Cigna study reported in 2018, one out of two Americans admit we feel lonely because our relationships seem to lack a sense of meaning or purpose. And some of us at retirement also lack social contact, not only a sense of meaningful connection. According to AARP studies, nearly 30% of seniors over 60 live alone and LGBTQ seniors are often alone without any family support.
So, what can we do to create more meaningful and fulfilling relationships? It helps to reflect on what truly motivates us at our core, seeking what is authentically meaningful for ourselves.
We can do this by creating opportunities to build relationships by following at least one of these five callings (motivations):
As a former career and rehabilitation counselor, I’ve often wondered: What if we invested as much in building our social lives as we did in our careers? What if we made our social networks as sacred as our professional networks-- how different would our lives be? Even with choosing our volunteer jobs after retirement, could we be wiser and more selective about building meaningful relationships in our community through the way we volunteer?
Social science research (from AARP studies, National Institute on Aging, and Corporation for National and Community Service) has shown us effective ways to build relationships in person, which include:
1. Volunteering in your community. Explore online volunteering websites and imagine yourself in action. (For example, www.volunteermatch.org) Be thoughtful about matching your volunteer role or title to what authentically reflects what is meaningful for you.
2. Taking classes on meaningful topics that allow for deep conversations, especially classes that meet regularly for several sessions, so you can get to know your classmates gradually. (Look into Osher Lifelong Learning Centers through a local university or check out online catalogues for community and adult education courses in your area. Explore community activities at your church or synagogue.)
3. Teaching classes. Share what you know and what you love at a senior center, Lifelong Learning Center, or adult and community education center.
4. Joining your local senior center for a wide range of activities, including support groups, local tours, games, and other social events.
5. Joining activities with your local library if you love books and want to discuss topics you read about. Many libraries have created initiatives to engage seniors in community events.
6. Taking guided tours or go exploring in your local area, “in your own back yard.” (At a historical society or museum where you also have a chance to socialize with fellow explorers.)
7. Joining a support group or 12-step group that is concerned with the issues you are facing (a group for chronic illness, a grief support group, a group for caregivers, a recovery group, a group at a senior center.)
8. Joining a campaign or cause. Become an advocate for a cause you deeply believe in. It is important to go to meetings face-to-face and meet people who care as you do.
9. Joining a meetup with Meetup.com. Check out the meetups in your city online.
10. Joining a spiritual group for worship, discussion, social events (church, synagogue, mosque, spiritual retreat center, mindfulness center)
In short, making meaningful connections is not about looking for the right person or group or simply finding our “tribe.” Instead it’s all about creating friendships, fellowships, and a sense of belonging by reaching out and offering our interest and support of others. Building community requires action and initiative. Indeed, to build meaningful relationships, we proactively become networkers and advocates who invite others to join our interests, our causes, or our creations.
Every single encounter in our community is an opportunity to break out of isolation. Our sense of place and belonging can grow - much like tending a garden - when we pay it forward and give support to those around us. We know how reassuring it feels when people reach out to us on days we feel invisible. Suddenly we are seen, and it seems the whole world opens up to welcome us. Every day we have the power to create little sanctuaries of belonging with each other. Let’s not shy away.
Learning and Teaching:
Val Walker is a rehabilitation consultant and contributing blogger for Psychology Today. She received her MS in rehabilitation counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the author of 400 FRIENDS AND NO ONE TO CALL: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community (a Central Recovery Press paperback, on sale March 26, 2020).