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Experience Magazine

Avoiding Loneliness in Retirement

Marlene Salomon


  • Retirement can be a significant life transition and concerns about isolation and loneliness are common.
  • Loneliness can have serious consequences for physical and emotional health, so it's essential to address these concerns.
Avoiding Loneliness in Retirement

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Are you hesitating to retire because you’re worried you’ll become isolated? Or perhaps you’re already retired and noticing your contact with others is shrinking. Those are real concerns and ones nobody should take lightly considering the seriousness of the harms caused by loneliness.

This sense of disconnect from your family and community can affect both your physical and emotional health. Consider these startling facts:

  • “Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States and putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions,” reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
  • More than 40 percent of seniors experience loneliness, according to a recent University of California study.
  • Loneliness has been found to be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, in addition to serious risk factor for cognitive decline.
  • A panel of experts who testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging reported that loneliness is a proven “silent killer” affecting approximately 8 million seniors in the country.

Up until now, loneliness was seen as a senior issue, but I think we’ve all experienced the feeling during the pandemic. Whether going to work with fewer colleagues to connect to or working from home, we’ve all lost social connections. Pre-COVID-19, you might have been going to the gym before work, eating lunch with co-workers, going out for a drink after work, or simply meeting with clients because you were doing your job. All those activities are important.

Social activities like those are equally important in retirement. As Aristotle once wrote, “Man is by nature a social animal.” And as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be.”

Can You Define Loneliness?

It’s important to know exactly what it means to experience loneliness. Psychology Today states, “Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it. Even some people who are surrounded by others throughout the day—or are in a long-lasting marriage—still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness.”

The UCLA Loneliness Scale asks about a range of feelings or deficits of connection. Questions include how often you feel you lack companionship, feel left out, feel “in tune” with people around you, feel outgoing and friendly, and that there are people you can turn to.

This is the key question: Do you have people to confide in?

And while loneliness is described as a state of distress, chronic loneliness is a more constant feeling. According to Business Insider, if left unchecked, people with chronic loneliness are at a greater risk for depression, sleep disorders, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, mental health problems, and substance abuse.

While loneliness isn’t a diagnosis, if you’re feeling the chronic symptoms for any length of time, a therapist can help by offering coping skills. They may also suggest you see a doctor for medication if they think you’re heading toward depression.

Leaving Loneliness Behind

The good news is that we now have an idea of what loneliness and isolation feels like. And through apps like Zoom, FaceTime, Teams, and others, we’ve learned how to connect and do our jobs, and we’ve discovered other ways to be purposeful. If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it forced us to find ways to connect with others that might have seemed inconceivable before it descended on the world.

In retirement, you may face hurdles. You may find yourself yearning for the structure, sense of purpose, and belonging to a community your job provided. Creating a new routine and relationships can seem daunting, but it can also make you feel like a heavy weight has been taken off your shoulders, especially if your job was challenging or unfulfilling.

It might also seem difficult to move from work mode to relaxation time, and you may have concerns about not having enough to do during the day. What matters is how you’ll reframe what you envision for your retirement to combat loneliness.

The great news is that there’s so much you can do in retirement—you just have to be open to the many possibilities. My personal suggestion is to plan, plan, plan.

Retire to something, not from something. The most successful retirees I’ve met had already planned for months, maybe years, prior to that last day of work. If you’re prepared, retirement doesn’t have to feel like a life-altering shift; it can be a smooth transition.

Perhaps being a lawyer is part of your identity. If you’re not a lawyer, who are you? You’re still a lawyer, and if there’s a professional necessary to every community, it’s a lawyer.

From doing pro bono work in your local court system to volunteering with Lawyers without Borders, the opportunities are endless, exciting, and necessary.

Or consider looking into the Service Corps of Retired Executives. It’s the largest network of volunteers who mentor small businesses and entrepreneurs. There are 300 chapters nationwide, which means there’s a good chance you’ll find a local opportunity to put your skills to good work.

Starting Over and Loving It

Let me tell you why I became a professional gerontologist. While working in a senior center, I noticed that some 80-year-olds seemed really old, had outdated ideas, walked using durable medical equipment, moaned when they got up from a chair, and didn’t drive themselves anymore. Their only interactions other than with family were with other seniors at the center.

At that time, there were computer classes for seniors called Senior Net, in which seniors taught other seniors computer skills on Word, eBay, Photoshop, and more. I noticed that most of the seniors teaching those courses didn’t use walkers or canes; in fact, many took advantage of the pool or fitness center on our campus after they taught their classes.

What’s the secret? I had to know. I earned two different retirement coaching certifications and learned that the secret is staying engaged. It’s about connecting with others with similar skills and interests, regardless of your or others’ age. These certifications led me to further my own education in my 50s.

You know the saying, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I believe for some like myself, so is higher education. It’s wonderful to find a new passion later in life. It keeps you young.

One of the seniors who taught the computer classes was a gentleman I got to know well. We’ll call him Bob. He retired at 62 from IBM after being a systems engineer for 38 years. He had no idea what was to come and was extremely nervous about it. For almost four decades, he knew where he was going to be every day, and he worked with many colleagues.

He’d never experienced so much leisure time. He told me that while he was starting to feel down and no longer needed, he came across a small newspaper ad in a local paper. The organization I work for now, the JCC, was looking for volunteer instructors and coaches to teach students over 50 computer skills—perfect for Bob’s skill set.

That ad was life-changing. Not only did Bob become a coach, but he became involved in other departments in the building, too. He installed and fixed computers, taught one-on-one classes to staff, and did private tutoring and troubleshooting in some seniors’ homes. The teachers and students were a community, often sharing lunch after class, and were invited to each other’s family functions.

Bob shared with me one day that coaching was great for him because it kept him up to date on the ever-changing tech field. He explained that he was trained in 1956—when a computer was five feet tall and needed to be in an air-conditioned room. After becoming a senior teacher, Bob and the other Senior Net teachers also took classes at a local community college to broaden their own interests.

Seeing Connections Made

Working in a senior department, I see older adults daily who’ve experienced a great life change, whether that was retirement, the loss of a spouse, or a move to be closer to family. The loneliness is prevalent—until we get them involved in a grandfriend program, visiting and sharing life experiences and skills with children or high school students. I often see the light come back into their eyes and a new spring in their step—they have purpose.

I often get calls from people saying that one of the grandfriend participants previously didn’t want to get up or get dressed in the morning, because what for? Many of those people are now up, dressed, and can’t wait to get to our center to see “their kids” or talk about the game last night with other members. They make friends with other older adults, with younger teachers, and with even younger children and their families.

Connection is so important, and I’m privileged to observe this daily.

This can be the best time of your life. It’s a time to explore all your interests, a journey such professionals as retirement coaches and senior organizations can help you begin. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Fred Rogers said, “Often when you are at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” Embrace the changes you’re experiencing.