Retired? Getting ready to retire? What’s the biggest issue you’ll face?
Not only is the answer to the above question important, it’s been my experience that identifying it could save your life.
I’m referring to loneliness.
Doctors have spent decades warning us about the dangers of obesity. But the medical world has only recently awakened to the negative health repercussions from the type of loneliness that millions of people experience during retirement.
How common is it? How dangerous? What can you do about it?
A recent study of 3.4 million North Americans and Europeans, spanning decades, and which combined 10 of the most influential studies on the topic, found that loneliness and social isolation are just as likely to cause an early death as are smoking or obesity.
Additionally, this study proved that loneliness in retirement also:
- Increased the risk of depression
- Led to substance abuse
- Raised the risk of heart disease
- Hastened the onset of Alzheimer’s
The Opposite of Lonely
The good news is that loneliness is treatable. And that just by making a few reasonable changes, a majority of us can thwart its negative effects and enrich and improve our lives.
It usually begins like this. You stop working, maybe you divorce, move to a less-expensive state, or, I’m sorry to say that maybe your spouse dies, and you find yourself alone or far away from friends and family.
About 30 percent of people over the age of 65 live alone, and that number jumps to 40 percent for people over the age of 70, so a large number of us will eventually be on our own. 
If this is you, or someone you know, what should you do?
Who should you seek out?
When you’re young and building a life and career, it helps to surround yourself with supportive, positive people who have an eye toward success and the future.
That shouldn’t change just because you’ve gotten older.
So what types of people should have the most positive impact on your life and health?
You should surround yourself with people who:
- Are upbeat
- Have shared interests
- Enjoy hobbies
- Have long-term goals
- Are physically active
- Have an extended social circle
- Are not dependent on drugs or alcohol
- Will be there for you in an emergency
- Will know to check on you if you are out of touch
When you look back at your education, your career, your savings and investments, you’ve made plans to accomplish goals.
Likewise, if you set the goal of cultivating your friendships, studies show that you’ll likely reap numerous health and social benefits, and even enjoy a longer life.
“Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.”
People and Your Well Being
On some level, lots of people believe that making friends should be as easy as falling off a log. You may feel that if you don’t already have a lot of friends, you’ve done something wrong.
You haven’t. It’s merely likely that, over the years, your circumstances have changed.
Let’s say you’re retired or preparing to retire. Maybe you’re single or widowed. Perhaps your children live far away. If you want to make new friends and beat loneliness, you can:
- Invite a neighbor to dinner
- Join the neighborhood watch organization
- Take an astronomy, camping, hiking or star navigation class through REI
- Join the local YMCA or YWCA
- Join a masters swim team at your local pool
- Enroll in adult education classes or go back to college
- Get a part time job
- Join a dating site (people over 60 are the fastest growing online dating demographic)
- Volunteer almost anywhere
- Join a health club
- Start a nonprofit
- Go to the local dog park
- Attend literary events at your local bookstore
- Sign up for a writing course
- Start a book club
- Explore group travel options
The possibilities are almost endless.
But if none of these suggestions suits you, and you’d like to ease into the transition via technology, take an hour and become familiar with the world of Meetup.com, an online social networking portal that facilitates in-person group meetings for people unified by a common interest in things like books, sports, movies or nature.
If you’re someone with a rich friendship base, a loving partner and dutiful children, all which have provided you with a packed social calendar, that’s terrific! (Perhaps consider reaching out to someone who isn’t so fortunate.)
However, if you live alone, if you feel lonely or depressed (or if you are concerned about someone you know), consider making the promise to yourself to meet new people with the goal of forming supportive and life-sustaining friendships.
Try not to think of it as a challenge. Instead, focus on how great this is going to be for you (or for someone you love).