"We were just getting our feet on the ground, and then the pandemic happened,” says Merritt, 57, a yoga instructor. “I feel like we should be further down the road in meeting people."
So about six months ago, Merritt joined a Facebook community group called Scottsdale Living to keep up with local happenings and connect with neighbors. She's had some success meeting new people and even found some who were interested in in-person yoga sessions, which Merritt is slowly returning to after all-virtual classes.
During the pandemic, our social circles shrank. People may have kept in touch with their closest friends, but acquaintances — the parents you chatted with at your child's soccer game or the work pals you lunched with occasionally — may have fallen by the wayside.
Now that more people are vaccinated and pandemic restrictions are easing, some of us are grappling with conflicting impulses: We're looking to regain those friend connections but still feeling cautious about our health. And many say they feel out of practice when it comes to social interactions.
"This has been a lonely time for a lot of people because we've been isolated,” says Anabel Basulto, a licensed marriage and family therapist for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California. “The older we get, the smaller our social circle becomes.”
Resuming a social life
Over the past 15 months, Reed Morris has not met up with friends in person, and he has no plans to do so now.
"It's still just too new at this point,” says the 60-year-old bank compliance officer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I've been very cautious.”
Because Morris will continue working from home indefinitely, he may never see some colleagues he used to get together with after work. While he says he misses “the personal interactions” with other people, “friends you really want to stay in touch with and they want to stay in touch with me, we will."
Sheryl Zimmerman, an aging expert and social work professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says it can be challenging to connect with others, especially if you work from home or are retired. “It's harder to meet friends the older you get,” she says, “because there just are fewer opportunities to do so.”
Zimmerman stresses that “social engagement, connection to other people and having meaning in your life, is critically important.” Friendship produces physiological and biological benefits, she says. A Duke University study found that social interactions create feelings of pleasure when endorphins bond with opioid receptors in the brain. It also found that social exclusion or the loss of friends causes something similar to physical pain.
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While many people are eager to resume a social life — whether it's rekindling old friendships or making new friends — you may need to adjust your expectations, advises Zimmerman, co-director of the interdisciplinary Program on Aging, Disability, and Long-Term Care at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.
During the pandemic, “people may have changed,” she says, adding that it's important to be patient and accepting. “People have put on weight, people may be less engaged, people might not be like their old self.”
Here are seven tips for making new friends.
1. Embrace technology
Even if you're fully vaccinated, you may still want to socialize virtually for a while longer. In addition to email, text and Zoom, you can participate in a range of online activities, such as joining an online book club, art class or a social network like Facebook. Go online to research in-person or virtual opportunities, such as on Meetup.com, which allows you to start a local group or meet others with similar interests in already-established groups for outings.
2. Take the initiative
Reach out and let others know you want to be part of a group or you're ready to socialize. Invite someone for a walk, coffee or a game of mah-jongg. It can be intimidating to initiate an invitation, and many people may be out of practice, but it's likely that others are eager to connect, too, Basulto says.
3. Seek community support
Turn to organizations that specialize in activities for older adults, such as your local senior center, AARP, and local chapters of membership organizations like the Sierra Club or the Rotary Club.
4. Get outdoors
If you are vaccinated, you can start doing outdoor activities, such as hiking or bicycling. Join a recreational sports league if you are athletically inclined. Groups and classes are starting to meet outdoors. See what local senior centers, community colleges and fitness centers offer.
Volunteering for a cause you're passionate about is a great way to meet people and do good, and many nonprofit groups rely on volunteers. If you're a dog lover, for example, contact your local animal shelter to see if help is needed. You also can look online for volunteer opportunities through AARP or at sites like VolunteerMatch.org, which lets you search nearly 90,000 volunteer opportunities nationwide.
6. Attend worship
Some houses of worship are starting to resume in-person gatherings. You can meet people as well as reinforce your support network and your faith. Churches, synagogues, mosques and others may offer other social opportunities, such as a choir or Bible study group.
7. Go on a date
This can be done in person or online, for friendship or romance. Some dating sites, including eHarmony, OurTime and SilverSingles, specialize in people over age 50.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association's website.