In order for us to avoid becoming socially isolated once we retire, we need to understand what that actually means and how it can affect us. (The following is equally relevant to seniors who have not worked full-time throughout their adult life and simply find themselves living alone or increasingly cut off from others as they age.)
Too many retirees have based the majority of their social life on their workplace friends— the people and colleagues with whom they spent eight or more hours a day for many years. These are the people they met up with at lunch or for dinner or cocktails after the day ended. They included perhaps the person with whom they went jogging or played squash during the noon hour.
Now they’re retired, those routines have disappeared. Result? A huge gap in their social life. What eventually happens is they often experience what’s referred to as social isolation. Especially if the individual hasn’t nurtured other friendships and relationships outside the workplace during their working years.
What Defines Social Isolation?
Those retirees who experience acute feelings of loneliness and isolation once they retire, often describe the situation they find themselves in along the following lines:
- They lack social contacts and have very few people to interact with on a regular basis
- The quantity and quality of any contact they do have with others is low or minimal
- They have few social roles to fill – for instance they’re not involved in clubs, associations, or volunteer work
- There’s an absence of mutually rewarding relationships.
Who’s At Risk?
Apart from people who have retired from the workforce, there are also other seniors who are not “retirees” per se who find themselves feeling isolated as well. Social isolation within the senior population is a serious situation in Canada. As one report notes,
Estimates say that 30% of Canadian seniors are at risk of becoming socially isolated, and 19%-24% of older Canadians feel isolated from others and wish they could participate in more social activities.
Contributing factors include:
- Living alone
- No family contact
- Economic status – lower income, poverty
- Issues with health and physical mobility
- Experiencing critical life transitions – retirement, loss of a spouse/life partner, divorce, moving away from home – all of which can result in reduced social contacts
- Limited or no access to transportation – perhaps loss of, or age-mandatory surrender, of driver’s licence
The Effects of Isolation
Isolation has many deep social effects on people of all ages, but especially for seniors and retirees. Negative effects may include:
- Shorter life span
- Lower sense of well-being
- More depression and poor mental health
- More disability from chronic diseases
- Reduced quality of life
- Caregiver burnout
- Inability to participate in and contribute to the community
How to Change Your Situation
There are numerous ways to alleviate your situation if you find yourself suffering from isolation and loneliness. It takes an effort on your part though. Key to the cure is to acknowledge your situation and then take steps to make changes. If necessary, consult with your family doctor if you feel you have no one else to discuss your feelings with. It’s possible he or she can not only offer you emotional support, but also steer you in the direction of those persons who could assist you in creating new friendships or put you in touch with associations who need your help as a volunteer or mentor.
In the meantime, you can self-help by searching out ways to:
- Build satisfying personal relationships – join a group in your community. Religious affiliations, schools, community centres, sports clubs, libraries, theatre groups, musical associations like a band or choir, and more all provide opportunities to join in and meet new people. Pick an activity or two which you love or have always wanted to participate in.
- Discover what could become your meaningful role in society – volunteer, offer your personal services as a mentor or substitute teacher at a local school, become a “social visitor” at a hospital or senior’s home. Doing so will make you feel connected and valued by others.
- This may sound trite, but why not adopt a dog and join the group that hangs out at the local dog park? I know a number of singles who have done just that and have since acquired a bunch of new friends who lunch together once a week and go for walks regularly. I’m tempted to do just that too! Not only do you gain ‘people’ friends, but also one of ‘man’s best friends’ too.
Benefits of Social Connections
Once you take the steps to open yourself up to new experiences and to making connections with others, you’ll find you’re feeling less and less isolated. You’ll probably notice the following benefits happening:
- Cognitive abilities improve
- Comfort from new friends with whom to talk or reminisce with
- Improved physical, emotional and mental health
- Increased ability to undertake daily living activities
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Improved empathy and higher self-esteem
We Can All Help
Making social-life changes are not always easy, and for some people, downright impossible due to introversion, insecurity, shyness, lack of confidence – any number of reasons. What we as social animals can do is try to be more aware of those people around us who are having difficulty connecting and appear to be isolated and try to help them make new connections and become involved. It often takes just a few kind words, an invitation to join in, or a thoughtful gesture to turn someone’s loneliness around and lift them up and out of their isolation. We can only hope to get the same consideration in return!