Create meaningful connections at any age
Melissa Galea Holmes, MSc, MA
Seniors may have a more difficult time creating social ties and staying active. No matter what our age, It's possible to build healthy new relationships.
Social ties are important for young and old alike. Seniors benefit from a lifetime of interactions, but since relationships change with time or life events, enjoying an active social life as a senior can be a challenge. Recognising opportunities to meet others could help conquer this hurdle, boosting health and happiness.
Variety is the spice of life
Across our lifespan we cross paths with others, add branches to our family tree and develop friendships wherever we strike a bond. These interactions form our social network—a web of people we trust and can turn to for support, conversation or simply a missing recipe ingredient when we’re short. Social networks act as important connections that can impact well-being.
As we age, key members of our social network generally include family members, close relatives, friends, neighbours and participants in work-related or hobby groups. Studies suggest that seniors with a more diverse and wider range of social ties tend to be happier.
Benefits of branching out
When we consider what we enjoy about the people we spend the most time with, it’s clear that they have different roles. They may make us laugh, have hobbies or interests in common or are there when we need good advice. This is why branching out and having a range of connections—such as caring family members, close friends and interesting acquaintances—reaps the most rewards.
One perk of a diverse social network is tangible support or information. For example, a family member may be happy to take you to the shops, or a green-thumbed neighbour may have tips on how to start an organic garden. These little gestures go a long way towards making day-to-day life easier.
But social support leads to more than just friendly favours. Meaningful social ties have a positive impact on health—both mental and physical well-being. Benefits may include a lower risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, a greater ability to carry out daily physical tasks, boosted emotional wellness including happiness and life satisfaction and better cognitive functioning. Recent research has even linked an active social life to a longer life.
Loneliness is a long road
Many of us feel lonely from time to time. But prolonged isolation can be physically and emotionally damaging. Social isolation has been linked to poor nutrition, lowered immunity, fatigue, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline.
Loneliness is not defined by the number of friends we do or don’t have, or how many generations our families hold. Instead, it is a self-determined state that occurs when our desired social needs are not met by our existing social network. Some individuals may feel fulfilled by a few strong bonds, while others need a wider web of family and friends.
People with a diverse social network are likely to be less anxious and considerably happier than those with ties restricted to a smaller pool of family and friends—so “the more the merrier” is a safe bet. Avoid the lonely road by exploring opportunities to expand your social network or build on existing relationships.
Developing meaningful relationships is an ongoing process, but getting started has never been easier. As the Australian population ages, more and more opportunities are springing up for seniors to get active and become involved in their communities.
Libraries, senior citizens clubs, community centres, neighbourhood houses and U3A are useful starting points to ask about events and activities. Attending a regular group activity, such as a book club, art group or exercise class is a great way to meet others with similar interests.
Men’s Sheds, an Australian innovation, are catching on around the world and provide mateship, and projects to work on, for many senior Australian men. If you enjoy getting outdoors, join an ecotourism or trekking group and discover a world of opportunities for making friends.
Many seniors around Australia choose to volunteer. Donating time and skills can be a rewarding personal experience, strengthening social networks and improving one’s sense of community belonging.
Volunteering breaks down age barriers—often integrating young and old, fostering relationships between generations and helping alleviate age-related stereotypes. In addition, people who volunteer tend to be happier and healthier, and have greater life satisfaction.
If you are looking for more informal social bonding, make an effort to maintain or strengthen your existing relationships. Pick up the phone and say hello, have guests pop by for lunch or offer to help out with babysitting during your free time.
Check out the sidebar below for additional tips on socialising.
The internet age
We might think internet-based social networks are for the kids, but seniors are the fastest growing demographic of internet users in Australia. The internet provides new opportunities for communication that may help to prevent isolation and alleviate loneliness and depression. If you aren’t internet savvy, check your local library for training opportunities to get you started.
The internet isn’t for everybody, but it might be worth getting online, if not to meet others, then as a resource for finding community activities or groups that you might like to become involved in.
Retirement: a key challenge to staying social
It’s easy to let slip participation in formal social activity groups after the age of 60. Retirement is a key challenge to social engagement as we get older.
However, involvement in community organisations and activities is linked to better adjustment to retirement and improved quality of life. So if you are planning to leave the workforce, start developing interests, hobbies and skills in advance of retirement to make the transition easier. Keep in touch with old work mates and apply your skills and training to other projects or volunteer work.
The idea that getting older is inevitably linked to slowing down is long outdated. Instead, “successful ageing” is the goal, and describes physical and emotional well-being maintained across the lifespan. Seniors are encouraged to have an active engagement with life, to develop effective strategies for coping with change, to feel a sense of self-worth and to hold future goals.
A key ingredient to successful ageing is a strong social network. So get out there and get to know people—and make the most of your senior years.
Extra tips to start socialising
Reluctant to branch out? Here are a few tips to start socialising.