Regular socializing is one of the keys to healthy aging and retirement—socializing averts loneliness, a killer worse than obesity, and interaction with others stimulates your brain cells, averting cognitive decline.
Pick up your phone and call or text a friend and set a date for coffee! (Men, this is especially important for you. For whatever reason, women are better at socializing than us, and I’ve seen married couples in retirement fall into an unhealthy pattern. Men lose the social network they had at work and become dependent on their wives both for company and to organize their social lives. The fact is, however much she loves you, your wife didn’t ask for and doesn’t want this job. It will drive her crazy and it will jeopardize your relationship.)
I have a couple of friends I see regularly for coffee. We debate politics (I believe in ignoring the common advice to avoid controversial topics), talk about movies we’ve seen, catch up on other friends and talk about our kids. When it’s over I wonder where the time went, and I always leave in a positive frame of mind. Don’t wait to get started! As the philosopher and psychologist William James wrote: “Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny.”
The small step of meeting a friend for coffee can lead to a destiny of happiness and longevity.
Loneliness in older Americans has been shown to be a killer as lethal as smoking, twice as lethal as obesity, and four times as lethal as exposure to air pollution, but people who take up volunteering for a minimum average of two hours a week after the death of a spouse fight loneliness by building social connections and finding a sense of purpose, according to researchers from four universities. Their article—”Does Becoming A Volunteer Attenuate Loneliness Among Recently Widowed Older Adults?”—was published in the Journals of Gerontology in 2017.
To reach their conclusions, researchers from Florida State University, Georgia State University, Boston College, and Stanford University analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration that has surveyed older Americans since 1990. They identified 5,649 survey respondents who were married in one wave of the survey, 592 of whom were widowed when they completed the survey again four years later. They divided the panel into several groups including those who took up volunteering in the interim, some for 99 hours or less per year, others for 100 or more hours per year. Using a three-question measure of loneliness, the analysis showed levels of loneliness among those who volunteered at the higher time commitment equal to respondents whose spouses had not died. The researchers were careful to control for factors that might also have influenced loneliness levels. If a survey respondent, for example, lost a spouse and afterward both widened their social circle and started volunteering, they were removed from the analysis so that only the impact of volunteering was accounted for.
The researchers concluded (in best academic-speak!): “We discovered that volunteering moderates the negative effects of loneliness for those who become widowed, but only in relation to engagement in 2 or more hr per week, on average.”
Speculating on why this might be so, they wrote:
Although institutional engagement like volunteering plays an important role in loneliness not all forms of institutional engagement seem to be sufficient to address the unique challenges that loneliness presents in later life. Working and religious attendance among younger adults are associated with lower levels of loneliness. However, these activities are not related to reduced loneliness for older adults, perhaps because they do not consistently allow older adults to feel that they are contributing in ways that are valued in a mutually beneficial way rendering these activities less emotionally meaningful. Beyond the social aspect of volunteering, it may be that engaging at a significant intensity in work that has a social purpose—as volunteer work often does–bolsters the kind of personal resources (e.g., health behaviors, self-esteem, purpose in life, sense of control) that are needed to manage the grief and loss associated with widowhood.
Looking for a volunteer opportunity but don’t know where to find one to suit your skills and interests? The Volunteer Match website is a good place to start.
Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) are community-based learning organizations, typically affiliated with a college or university, offering classes, lectures and other activities primarily for retired people. While some LLIs also have paid staff, nearly all are strongly volunteer-driven, providing fantastic opportunities for socializing as well as for learning. Following the lead of the very first LLI founded at the New School in New York in the early 1960s, most adhere to a peer teaching/facilitation model where LLI members lead classes based on academic or professional expertise, or personal passion. Not convinced yet? LLIs are an incredible bargain, charging only nominal fees for semester-long memberships or individual classes.
How do I find an LLI near me?
Road Scholar, the educational travel not-for-profit organization, has a searchable database of more than 400 LLIs across the United States.
Retirement Reflections #1 – Transitions (63 years, 4 months)
Retirement is several years away for me, but it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it. I’m thinking about it as I make my daily commute by bus and subway to work in Boston, a commute that should take exactly an hour, but that can drag out to an hour and a half when there’s heavy snow like there was earlier in the month, or when the MBTA’s Red Line slows—or comes to a complete standstill—because of a “disabled train” ahead. I’m thinking about it when my sore knee keeps me from running and I start to wonder if this time it won’t get better and I’ll be forced to give up what’s been the foundation of my fitness regimen for decades. I’m thinking about it as I witness transitions taking place around me that fill me with hope even as they speak to the one-way nature of our mortal lives.