Kristin Hultgren

Kristin Hultgren

The Greatest Chapter

Growing Older, Not Lonelier

Tips for Building a Support Network in Later Life

Posted Jan 28, 2018

Recent media shines light on the fact that growing older does not mean growing lonelier. The main characters in the Netflix’ series Grace and Frankie, for example, demonstrate the importance of close friendships in later life as they navigate challenges and continue to build their unique friendship. Beyond the fact that this show counters some major stereotypes of aging, the social connections presented are honest and endearing. 

Across older adults, the belief that one has a social support network (regardless of how it actually looks) is crucial in later life. Research has shown that social support is an important predictor of life satisfaction in old age (Toma et al., 2014; Hsu, 2012; Dumitrache et al., 2017) and that social support can even lessen the negative impact of poor health on life satisfaction (Dumitrache et al., 2017). 

Personally and professionally, I’ve seen social connections to be at the heart of wellbeing in my older friends, family, colleagues, and clients. In the face of physical, mental, and emotional changes that may come with aging, older adults can benefit greatly from a strong network of social connections to not only weather any storm, but to access a deep strength and resilience within. 

Yet, in the face of stereotypes of isolation and loneliness, it can be unclear as to how to build a strong social support network in later life. There are definitely challenges at every age/stage when it comes to building social connections. For many older adults, close friends and family members may pass away leaving a gaping hole in a social network. While every individual has their own set of strengths and barriers when it comes to social support, here are some ideas that I’ve come across in my life and work with older adults:

1.Give Back

If you have the time and resources to volunteer, getting out and giving back is an excellent way to make important social connections. Volunteering in an area you are passionate about (like animals, the environment, history, politics, children, etc.) allows you to interact with others who have similar interests and gives you a chance to make meaningful social connections. 

2.Engage in Community Activities

Take stock of those around you to see if there are opportunities to connect within your already established networks. Venturing out to a local farmers market, grabbing lunch with a co-worker, or participating in a church bake sale allows you to connect with others and may lead to deeper friendships over time.

3.Group Fitness

Most communities have recreation centers that offer free or low-cost classes for older adults (e.g. “silver sneakers”). These classes are excellent for staying in shape since most offer modifications for any ability level. These classes also offer community and can be a great place to make new friends and build a support network.

4.Access Loved Ones Near and Far

Sometimes connecting with others involves the simple act of reaching out. You may have old friends, current friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, etc. who would love to connect. Phone conversations, dinner dates, or neighborhood walks can become a dependable and stable source of support.

5.E-Resources

You can find local book clubs, community events, support groups, book clubs, theater groups, trivia teams, sports clubs, art classes, family outings, cooking classes, hiking clubs, and yoga studios online. There are also sites for older adults interested in online dating. Looking online can help you get out and meet people when you aren’t sure where else to look.

6.Group Living

While certainly not for everyone, there are many things that I've seen as beneficial in my work in group living settings. Residents are surrounded by people and may engage in classes, activities, and meals with their peers and friends. While there may be unique challenges (such as gossiping, bullying), group living can be an excellent way for some people to form a social network especially for oldest-old adults.

Overall, social support remains crucial at every phase of life, including older adulthood. Building and maintaining relationships is an essential part of being human and is beneficial at all ages. There are many ways that older adults build social support networks and these ways are always changing as the new cohort of older adults emerges (the Baby Boomers). 

References:

Tomás, J., Sancho, P., Gutiérrez, M., & Galiana, L. (2014). Predicting Life Satisfaction in the Oldest-Old: A Moderator Effects Study. Social Indicators Research, 117(2), 601-613.

Hsu, H. (2012). Trajectories and covariates of life satisfaction among older adults in Taiwan. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 55(1), 210-216.

Dumitrache, C., Rubio, L., & Rubio-Herrera, R. (2017). Perceived health status and life satisfaction in old age, and the moderating role of social support. Aging & Mental Health, 21(7), 751-757.