Staying close to family and friends is often vital to aging well and living a long, meaningful life.
People who connect socially are generally healthier, happier and better able to confront whatever obstacles are thrown their way, reports show. Conversely, those who are socially isolated may sleep less, abuse alcohol or drugs more and experience bouts of loneliness. They may suffer from depression or dementia or face other serious health problems.
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Sadly, loneliness can be a catch-22: As people age, they are more likely to encounter physical or mental challenges that may make socializing more difficult. Yet making connections may reduce the likelihood of experiencing such problems.
At the same time, as people get older, some of the friends and loved ones who used to navigate life with them may no longer be around. A study published in 2019 suggests that those who are grieving a spouse are at a high risk for loneliness. The pandemic made things worse.
Many potential antidotes to loneliness
Fortunately, you can counteract loneliness in myriad ways, such as making time to give back, seeing the world, learning alongside others or relaxing with friends. But no one solution can help people make social connections, especially since not everyone has the same financial resources, physical capabilities or circle of friends to rely on.
In no particular order, here are 13 free or low-cost ways you can meet new people or connect with friends you’ve lost touch with.
Indeed, more than half of nearly 2,000 people in the U.S. who were part of an AARP online survey in June said they knew someone personally who passed away or became seriously ill from COVID-19. As a result, two-thirds of those people report that social connections and spending time with loved ones are much more important to them now.
But the pandemic changed even respondents who did not know someone who died or became seriously ill from COVID. Nearly 60 percent of them indicated the importance of such social connections and spending high-quality time with the people they love.
1. Organize a reunion. Reach out on social media or through alumni groups to former school, workplace or summer camp chums who are presumably just as eager to rekindle relationships. Family reunions, small or large, fit the bill too.
Arrange an in-person reunion if possible and, if people can afford it, maybe even travel to some far-flung destination. If not, FaceTime, Zoom or another video chat app may be your next-best option. Follow up with regularly scheduled chats or meetups.
2. Take a trip. Where have you always wanted to go? Now may be the time to take that trip, budget and health permitting.
If you’re into genealogy, perhaps the trip you take is to follow your ancestral roots. You might even discover and meet distant kin living in another country.
Visit and volunteer for your cause
3. Volunteer. Are you passionate about saving the planet or other causes and issues? Seek volunteer opportunities at charitable organizations and grassroots events.
4. Walk your dog. If you are able, caring for a pet will not only provide loving companionship at home but will afford you the chance to meet other people who adore their own furry family members. You’ll almost certainly encounter fellow pet owners when walking your dog.
And if you’re truly crazy about animals, volunteer at a shelter, where you will not only be do good but also meet like-minded humans.
5. Visit a house of worship. Churches and synagogues frequently host social events and volunteer opportunities in addition to providing a sense of community.
6. Seek intergenerational connections. Young and old can learn from one another.
Eldera, which matches people 60 or older as mentors for kids 5 to 17, is billed as a global virtual village where the generations are brought together. Mentor and child have weekly 30- to 90-minute meetups over Zoom to read books, share stories, play games and discuss practically anything. Mentors assume a kind of honorary grandparent or aunt/uncle role.
“They have to figure out their own relationship,” CEO Dana Griffin says. “The magic that two people can create together is so far above anything we could imagine.”
Mentors are all U.S.-based, must pass a background check and meet Eldera’s “kindness, generosity and curiosity” requirements. Only a parent or legal guardian can sign up their kids, who come from 27 countries.
The service is free for both mentors and the children’s parents or guardians. However, Eldera does have a waiting list. For safety reasons, Eldera intentionally does not pair mentors and kids who live in the same geographic area, but Griffin says the mentors routinely get together on Zoom and sometimes in person.
AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps can help you make a one-on-one connection in your community. In 20 cities across the country, volunteers 50 and older help young readers become great readers. In-person volunteering is still on hold because of the pandemic.
Expand your circle
7. Reach out to strangers. Never mind that you were long ago taught not to talk to strangers.
Tiny Habits author BJ Fogg suggests visiting a park at the same time each day. Note the other people you see around. If you feel comfortable, strike up a conversation with folks who appear approachable.
Eldera’s Griffin also suggests reaching out to people you don’t know personally. If you enjoy an article, newsletter or book, let the author know, she says. You’ll make their day better and reap your own benefits. She also recommends saying hello to someone you come across in your neighborhood, at the store or library. Ask them about their day.
8. Play video games. Multiplayer video games and electronic sports, now known as esports, can be extraordinarily social. You might compete against other avid gamers or play more casually for fun.
Either way, you can bond with players in gaming communities or on streaming sites such as Twitch and YouTube. You might even become a rock star with your kids or grandkids.
9. Host a cocktail party. “We’re all lonely after COVID, and [now] we’ve got to dust off the COVID cobwebs,” says Nick Gray, author of The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships With Small Gatherings. He recommends hosting a casual cocktail party, complete with name tags, reminder messages and a little bit of structure to break the ice.
“You’re going to help your friends make new friends, and then ... you’re going to be the center of attention,” he says.
The most obvious question: Whom should you invite? Gray suggests reaching out to neighbors you may know only a little.
“Everybody wants to know someone who brings people together,” he says. “Whenever you invite someone to an event, it’s like a little gift you get to give them.”
One theme Gray recommends for a party: a book swap. You and your guests lay books you no longer want on a table, free for anyone to pick up. But it’s less about the books and more about the inevitable mingling that occurs. It might even lead to a regular book club.
Take on a boarder, and earn extra income
10. Rent a spare room. If you’re a widow/widower, retiree or empty nester, the house where you raised a family is now awfully barren. Consider renting out a spare room. Besides finding companionship, you may earn a bit of extra income and even get someone to pitch in with light chores.
While all people who live alone aren't lonely, it is the second biggest risk factor behind death of a spouse, according to two studies a decade apart. About 14 million adults 65 and older lived alone in 2019, a nearly 30 percent increase from 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates.
“The benefits of this are not just the social connections that are made, but it’s actually an opportunity for older adults to give back,” says Chief Executive Noelle Marcus of an online home-sharing portal called Nesterly, which caters to older people seeking to rent rooms in greater Boston; Columbus, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky.
Hosts often rent rooms to grad students, who may stick around an entire semester or longer. Tenants must rent for at least a month.
Hosts determine the rent, which is sometimes reduced for renters who help around the house. Nesterly takes a modest fee and handles background checks for both the homeowner and the renter. Licensed social workers are on staff to assist with any issues that arise.
You may find similar services in your area by consulting the National Shared Housing Resource Center.
11. Check your health insurance plan for benefits that might help. Certain Medicare Advantage, Medicaid or other health insurance plans may offer services such as Papa, which Ellen Rudy says is about providing companionship. As a free member benefit, Papa will send a so-called Papa Pal to your front door.
“You start with, ‘I’m here to listen to you; I’m here to play a game with you; I’m here to help around the house,’ ” says Rudy, Papa’s vice president of health and social impact. A Papa Pal may help you garden, move boxes, pick up groceries or prescriptions, or drive you to the doctor.
“A lot of older adults lose transportation. And sometimes that loss contributes to loneliness,” she says.
12. Follow your purpose. Griffin recommends thinking of three things you enjoy doing the most — cooking, gardening, reading stories, sports, whatever. Or make a list of the things you have always wanted to learn more about. Then poke around to find a free class online or at a local community college or university. You will learn a new skill and meet people who are interested in the same subjects.
13. Visit AARP.org. While on our site:
- You can get training to be a Friendly Voice volunteer to check in and talk with people who have asked to be contacted. Or you might want to request a call yourself.
- At AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect website, created in collaboration with four other groups, you can discover help in 10 categories based on your zip code. It also has a quiz to see if you’re at risk for social isolation.
- At AARP’s Virtual Community Center you’ll find scores of interactive classes for fun, such as dancing, restorative yoga and wines of the Western U.S. Or you can exercise your brain and learn about topics such as Medicare, new technology, preventing fraud or retirement planning. (Links to Movies for Grownups screenings are also available. You could have a watch party on your big-screen TV.)
- At aarp.org/local, enter your zip code to find free events and opportunities in your area.
- Meanwhile, AARP affiliate Senior Planet offers free virtual fitness and other classes, including some on learning to use technology. It also has in-person centers in Denver; New York City; Palo Alto, California; Plattsburgh, New York; Rockville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.; and San Antonio, Texas, but not all are fully open because of the pandemic.
“Older people tend to have stronger and better friendships than young people when they form them,” says Thomas Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) and Senior Planet. “Technology becomes a chance to kind of make and create those opportunities for people. But you’ve got to close the deal by reaching out, sending somebody a personal message [and] eventually putting down the computer and going for lunch.”
This story, originally published June 27, 2022, was updated with results of an AARP survey.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune, and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.