Many retirees look forward to this new chapter of their lives with excitement, and rightly so. While retirement can offer adults a new lifestyle of freedom, opportunities and experiences, few of us consider how lonely this time can be. Especially for single adults or those whose spouse still works, the major changes to their daily environments, routines and social interactions can usher in a period of isolation unless they make an effort to stay socially active.
THE DANGERS OF ISOLATION
Social engagement is just as important as all the other steps we take to remain physically and emotionally healthy. In fact, prolonged isolation and a constant feeling of loneliness can cause your health to plummet. According to a recent Health and Retirement study, constant loneliness increases premature death by 14 percent.
Isolation is more than just feeling lonely, though. People who suffer from isolation often feel bored, apathetic, misunderstood or worthless. A lack of connection with others can lead to mental illness and depression, as well as low self-esteem, high-blood pressure, higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and less restorative sleep. Combined, these symptoms can influence how we perceive meaning in our lives. Isolation can cause some people to take poor care of the aspects of personal health that are still in their control.
Unfortunately, isolation is a slippery slope to slide down. In order to combat the dangers of isolation and loneliness, and experience the best that your retirement years can offer, you need to be proactive in maintaining important social connections and meaningful relationships.
BENEFITS OF SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT
According to psychologist John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, having good relationships is one of the keys to happiness: “The stresses and challenges of life are more easily endured if we can share them with someone in whom we can confide and trust.”
Cacioppo isn’t alone in his thinking. Consider the other benefits of social engagement:
- Enhanced Mental Health
Socialization helps us feel loved and needed as our lives are affirmed by what we do and with whom they interact. Being around other people, especially if we’re doing something fun or rewarding, helps us keep a healthy mental state with a positive outlook on life.
- Sense of Belonging
Enjoying the company of others who have similar personalities or interests helps us feel like we belong somewhere. For those who may have lost a spouse or a close friend, the need to belong may be more intense. Engaging with others can cultivate new friendships, and doing something meaningful together creates lasting bonds.
- Better Self-Esteem
Self-esteem can plummet for those who no longer have the affirmation of their career to maintain a sense of purpose. However, the more we socialize or participate in activities with others, the more we benefit by feeling like we contribute to the community. Any kind of positive interaction with friends, family or neighbors can help us feel confident in ourselves and our abilities.
- Improved Physical Health
When we have good conversations or do things we love with others, our bodies take note and release health-promoting chemicals that boost the immune system to ward off illness and make us feel physically well.
- Increased Cognitive Functioning
According to Berkeley University of California, socializing is key to keeping the brain sharp as we age. Having an active social life encourages us to continue learning, observing and responding to the world around us. Conversation and activity are great for exercising the mind and can potentially lower the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
No matter what our age, we are more likely to keep ourselves healthy if we have people holding us accountable. Being out in public or around friends and family creates reasons to stay well and helps foster a positive state of mind.
- Purposeful Living
Staying social benefits us by helping us feel that our lives still have purpose. Having somewhere to go, something meaningful to do or people to see helps us get out of bed, excited to face the day. When we cultivate strong relationships with others, we gain a sense of fulfillment, and spending quality time with those we love reminds us that life is worthwhile.
IDEAS FOR STAYING SOCIALLY ACTIVE
Fortunately, the possibilities for social engagement are practically endless. If you’re feeling isolated, or missing the interactions you used to enjoy, try some of these ideas for making new connections or strengthening old ones:
- Volunteer for a local community organization or church.
- Join a group focused on a special interest, such as a book club, Bible study, walking group or chess club.
- Take a class and learn something new, like cooking, dancing or pottery.
- If you live close enough, arrange regular visits or play dates with grandkids, or offer to host a weekly family dinner.
- Check out your local senior living communities for special events or clubs.
- Attend local events, such as concerts and fundraising dinners, to support the community.
- Reconnect with old friends. If you don’t live in the same area, plan a trip to meet each other.
No matter how you choose to spend your retirement years, you’re sure to experience more meaningful, joy-filled days when you’re connected to others around you. For the sake of your health and happiness, make socializing a priority. Your retirement can grant you the fulfillment you deserve when you share it with the people who matter most.
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