Marc Connolly is single and his closest relative lives six hours away. But just because he's aging solo doesn't mean he's lonely.
Connolly, 63, has developed a “found family” — a group of people that helps him stay connected and engaged. Bonding twice a week with his friends through activities like mountain biking or cross-country skiing makes him feel good, and the benefits are reciprocal.
"It's a sense of community, a sense of belonging,” says Connolly, 63, who lives in Livonia, New York. “If I need something, they help. I know the support is there. I don't have to think about it."
Socializing becomes increasingly important as we age, even though people tend to do it less. In fact, research out of Michigan State University's Close Relationships Lab has shown that investing in friendships as we age may be even better for our health than maintaining family ties.
Of course, COVID-19 has made that more difficult. But studies are clear: When aging on our own, we are happier when we have people to do things with and rely on — especially when distanced or estranged from family.
Seek out new companions
A found family, also sometimes called a family of choice, can stand in for relatives and provide deep and meaningful bonds and love, along with emotional support and even physical care and aid. Found family members may bring meals if one is sick, check on someone's well-being, or recognize when that friend needs to get out of the house or to talk.
For people who are solo aging, without partners or relatives nearby, these relationships can be crucial.
"Having a support system can protect you,” says grief expert Eleanor Haley, cofounder of What's Your Grief. “Not from pain or feeling that your life has been turned on its head. But it has been linked to increased well-being and better coping skills, and it may lessen a person's desire to isolate."
But creating your own found family can be a challenge. One way to approach this is to seek out companions who can serve in different roles. For example, one friend might be really good at helping you research practical information. Another may know how to listen closely without offering unsolicited advice.
Building a close network “is something many people have to actively work toward,” Haley adds. “Not all of us are blessed with great, wonderful relatives who we have shared values with and who are totally supportive."
Reach out for help when needed
Victoria Benoit, of Phoenix, has reached out in different ways since her husband died three years ago.
The 67-year-old now has a few women on speed dial for questions about men and dating. They behave differently than her “beloved Bernie” did — breaking things off without wanting to talk about why.
When newly widowed, she reached out to one of her husband's friends for help with physical chores around the house — including filling a three-ton dumpster with items Bernie had hoarded over the years.
Benoit remembers what it felt like to build up the courage to ask for help: “I sat down, closed my eyes, went inward. Took some deep breaths, centered myself in my heart, then said a short prayer,” she says. “Then I visualized Robert saying yes.”
He did. And he has stuck around.
"I talk to him if I have a question about the house or car or computer or anything,” Benoit says. “I would definitely say he's part of my family."
Share your life with others
After periods of isolation — whether from COVID-19 or losing loved ones — people can feel cynical and skeptical of others. But try not to let this derail friendships.
"Part of creating a friend family is opening yourself up to new people and possibilities,” Haley says. “So if you genuinely wish to develop new and meaningful connections, it's worth giving people the benefit of the doubt."
Generational expert Alexis Abramson is a big believer in “fictive kinship,” a term used for social networks and regular interactions with people outside relationships bound by blood or marriage.
According to Abramson, moving to a naturally occurring retirement community, or NORC — a building or neighborhood in which a substantial number of residents are over 60 — is a great option for solo agers.
An authority on the health, wellness, happiness and safety of the 50-plus crowd, Abramson says: “Although solo agers are obviously very capable of finding lifelong learning opportunities, passion projects and hobbies, it is always fun to have others to discuss your life with — or even to join you in your pursuits."
Abramson, 53, has her own plan to surround herself with “fictive kin” when she retires. It involves buying a plot of land with friends in Europe and creating a cohousing compound so they can age in place together — yet apart.
"To take the thought a step further,” she says, “the plan is also to build a house for a caregiver couple to live in so they can take care of all of us when we're centenarians."
Create Your Family of Friends
We can't choose our family, but we can choose our friends. Whether by necessity or choice, creating a found family is good for happiness, health and well-being. Here's how:
1. Find commonality. Consider participating in groups, both virtual and in person, where you're likely to meet others who share your values, interests, lifestyle and experiences. Support groups, clubs, online forums and church groups are good places to start.
2. Make a list. Writing down the characteristics you'd like your friend family to possess will help you identify good matches when you see them. Are you looking for people who are adventurous? Pet-friendly? Interested in reading and talking about books?
3. Ask for help. This may take some humility, but know that most people have a desire to offer a hand.