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.