If you’re feeling lonely these days, you’re not alone. Isolation is a big concern for older adults.
Nearly a quarter of adults age 65 and older are considered socially isolated — a statistic associated with a nearly 50 percent increased risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions, according to a 2020 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Technology is often touted as a way to bring people closer together, but Zoom, FaceTime, Facebook, texting and other high-tech options can sometimes be challenging to use. And in a social media era of heart and smiley-face emojis, online communication can feel less than authentic.
“Any social scientist will tell you we are wired for connection, but with technology, we [often] only have the illusion of connection,” says Bruce Wayne McLellan, 68, of Naples, New York, who hosts a podcast on the subject of kindness.
So what are some ways to connect with others that don’t involve our gadgets?
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly of Santa Rosa, California, offers these suggestions: If you buy a bag of apples and realize you can't eat all of them before they spoil, leave a couple on a neighbor's doorstep with a note that says, “I want to share these with you.” Do the same thing with a mason jar filled with flowers from your garden or with a recently finished book you want to lend (and suggest that they pass it on when they're finished).
“In doing so, we create — we crochet — connection,” says Manly, author of Aging Joyfully. “Anything we do becomes part of who we are. We need to look at doing things that give our lives purpose. People who have a purpose in life are far happier.”
Bond over food
Who doesn't like good food and good conversation? Start a dinner club by selecting a group of people you'd want around the table. Then gather monthly (or however often feels comfortable). If you're the host, decide on a menu theme and serve a main course. (Bonus points for experimenting with more obscure world cuisines.) Everyone else helps round out the meal with an appetizer, side dish or dessert.
If that feels overwhelming, invite someone for coffee, or pack some snacks or a picnic for an outdoor outing.
Those who are homebound can whet their appetites by sharing recipes on the phone and “talking about different variations they've tried or think would be good to try,” says Sandy Markwood, CEO of the national nonprofit organization USAging.
Have meaningful conversations
Open up lines of communication by asking others about an important childhood experience, favorite travel destination, or memorable book or movie.
"Most people can be approachable and get a conversation going, but they get stuck on how to turn it into something meaningful,” says offline dating expert Camille Virginia.
Virginia recommends these five steps.
1. Use open-ended questions. “What’s the best part of your day so far?” is an easy one.
2. Give space for silence. “It might be awkward at first, but if you’ve asked a great question, someone is probably just thinking of a response,” Virginia says. “If you jump in and cut them off, they're not going to feel comfortable opening up.”
3. Really listen. “This is probably the most important aspect — listen like your life depends on it,” emphasizes Virginia. Picture yourself in the shoes of your conversation partner and ask clarifying questions along the way. “It keeps you engaged and makes the other person feel that what they're saying matters.”
4. Release judgment. As soon as you notice judgment, try to channel it into a compliment, compassion or curiosity, Virginia says. If a coworker wins an award and sparks jealousy, for example, offer sincere congratulations or think about what that person might have had to sacrifice to earn that accomplishment.
5. Share insights and stories. Contribute to the conversation as well. That might include observations from an earlier visit to the dog park, wondering about the breed of a particular dog, then mentioning that you miss having a dog. Let thoughts meander back and forth.
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Keep it short if you need to
Picking up the phone just to say hello — even for a minute — can make someone's day. Say up front that you have only a minute to spare but that you felt the urge to reach out.
Similarly, if you're running errands and pass the house of someone you know, stop by for a quick front-door greeting. No need to go inside — you weren't expected, after all, so you don't want to cause anxiety over housekeeping standards.
Markwood points to the Friendly Volunteer program, part of the Aroostook Agency on Aging in Maine, as a model. Trained volunteers are matched with those who need assistance getting to important appointments and the grocery store, or who would just like company for lunch or games.
We all have mirror neurons, which are brain cells that react when we observe the actions of others. They’re why we feel tears well up when we see someone we care about cry, or why we wince when we see someone get hurt.
Because those neurons fire when we see someone smile, we should make that happen for other people more often, says McLellan, host of the kindness podcast.
“We’ve been talking about contagion for the last two years with COVID," says McLellan. "Think about the contagion of a smile. There are so many opportunities to do that with people behind a desk, at a register, on the road. Make it genuine.”
If you’re lonely — which is different than simply being alone — it's likely someone living close to you is also lonely, says Manly.
Try reaching out and being honest about how you're feeling in the hope of creating a connection.
Says Manly: “We often are afraid of being vulnerable, but one of the greatest acts of kindness you could ever do for yourself, and for somebody else, is to say, ‘I’m feeling lonely. I would like to connect.’”
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M Is for Mindful.