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How to Make Friends in a Retirement Community

Creating social connections is easier than you think

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Activities serve as a natural conversation starter and help older people discover new and similar interests.
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What do cliff diving and moving to a retirement community have in common? Both require a leap of faith to trade the comfort of the familiar and the routine for a risk that, if successful, will yield an exhilarating reward. By far the more prevalent adventure, though, is packing up a lifetime of stuff to start over in a place where the people, the culture, even the weather may be different. And the thousands of Americans who move to a retirement community or assisted living residence each year are seeking not just a more relaxing, simplified lifestyle and, possibly, reliable medical support but also the kinds of companions who have made their previous decades rich and enjoyable.

But leaving a longtime home and neighborhood you could navigate with your eyes closed can be scary. “Moving is stressful, and moving to a senior community may be particularly taxing when it is an unforeseen outcome of a sudden decline in health and independence,” says Molly Maxfield, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado.

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She notes that retirees have many more hours to do what they wish but may not have enough companions to share them with. “We hear about retirement planning for financial purposes, but many people don’t consider ways to plan for continued social interaction.” Among the considerations are whom you want to spend time with and on what, whether it is hobbies, learning new skills or volunteering for a personal cause, Maxfield says.

Helping those who move to Brighton Gardens make these decisions so they get socially adjusted and comfortable is a responsibility that Barbara Gallagher, activities and volunteer coordinator at this Sunrise Senior Living community in St. Charles, Ill., takes seriously. “As the activities director, it is most important that I — and the entire team — learn our residents’ rich history and story, so that we can successfully transition our residents into their new home and a happy and engaged life.”

Activities serve as a natural conversation starter and help people discover new interests and gain pride in what they can accomplish. “I do believe that the ones who will enjoy life the most are the ones who step outside of their comfort zone and get involved in learning a new game or even a skill,” Gallagher observes. “I have seen some wonderful transformations of residents who came to us without much zest for life who seem to blossom.”

Participation in events is a big factor in settling into new surroundings, agrees Justine Merlin, activities director at the Pines at Whiting, in Whiting, N.J., a senior community providing independent and assisted living. “We offer recreational, fitness and spiritual programming seven days a week to provide a diverse variety of activities,” she says. 

One challenge is that a retirement community can “run the risk of being a bit like high school,” says Gallagher, with some people feeling socially insecure in their new environment. To help prevent anyone from feeling isolated, Gallagher and other staffers introduce residents who have similar hobbies and backgrounds. “If we spot someone who may feel left out, we will always make it a priority to partner that resident with someone who will nurture a friendship with them.” What’s more, new folks are introduced at a welcome lunch, where they are paired with veterans who help them adjust.

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Friendship Village Columbus, in Columbus, Ohio, has a welcome committee run by residents who serve as guides to newcomers, setting them up with a variety of folks to dine with, advising them on more than 50 committees and programs — such as woodworking, instrumental and vocal music, gardening, art and creative writing — and answering questions about the community, says life enrichment coordinator Carolyn Randolph. “Put yourself out there and start sampling these engagement opportunities,” Randolph suggests. “Small groups of people may gather in lounges in the community for conversation; join them. Write a thank-you card to people you've met, thanking them for making you feel welcome.”

Above all, don’t sabotage yourself with negative thinking, Randolph advises. “Imagining that people won't like us, reading something negative into a person's reaction, telling ourselves we won't be accepted. Give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt, and extend to others the latitude you'd like them to give you.”

Jim Wagner, who has an apartment in Friendship Village, is certainly living that advice. The retired minister, 83, is the dictionary definition of a joiner, rattling off the names of numerous committees and activities that he participates in, including serving as the choir director. “I came with a positive attitude,” Wagner says — along with a willingness to try a variety of activities, among them the dining services committee, the marketing committee, the travel committee and the newsletter, for which he interviews new residents, enabling him to constantly meet potential friends.

Relocating can be tough, though, for people who are naturally shy and don’t do well in large groups. But rather than withdraw because of social anxiety, take incremental steps, Maxfield advises: “More introverted people may want to start with a small-group activity, such as chess or Scrabble.”

Even those who aren’t naturally outgoing can succeed socially with low-risk gestures. “When it comes to making friends,” says Randolph, “the best advice is to be open, smile and express interest in others. Simple questions such as ‘How long have you lived here?’ or ‘Where did you grow up?’ can begin conversations.”

Wagner made it a point to learn the first and last names of 200 neighbors, a brain-challenging way to make an instant connection with others. But he admits that even in a place with the sunny moniker Friendship Village, “loneliness is a continuing issue, especially among residents with no living family. There are people who are totally introverted and take extra compassion.” Wagner reminds gregarious residents to reach out to their more withdrawn neighbors, a challenge most readily accept. Outgoing people invite shy ones to meals and help them with errands. “I noticed early on the compassion of residents to other residents. This community really works at the friendliness.”

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