After my kitchen was clean at the end of the day on Thanksgiving, I went out for a walk. It was a warm evening (by November in Minnesota standards). A couple of blocks up the way, I took a walkway that has sculptures along the trail at a nearby senior housing complex. It was dark enough that I couldn't see the sculptures, but something did catch my eye as I came around the bend. Directly ahead of me, on each of the three floors of the building, a single person was standing at their patio door looking out onto the courtyard. I couldn't help but feel they were all looking out wistfully and trying to pass time, though I admit that may have been what I read into it. I was struck by the sight of those three people above and below each other for the rest of my walk. It made me think about loneliness and a report I was reviewing.
If you are seeking to create a full, healthy retirement, connection is one of the three most important factors. While being connected to family is important, being connected to meaningful community is also an important determinant.
We need to be deliberate about building and maintaining our connections as we move into and through retirement. Communities change, hobbies change, our mobility and other abilities may change, and we will often find that the same people we've previously had around us are no longer there. What are you doing to create new relationships and sustain the relationships around you?
Loneliness and isolation is one of the biggest retirement health issues that we don't often talk about. It increased one's risk of dying by over 25%. One in five adults over the age of 50 (notice it isn't age 70 or 80--when the number gets higher) in the United States is impacted by social isolation. Isolation and loneliness increases the risk of dementia by 64%. It has twice the health risks of obesity--think of all the attention we give obesity. In terms of heart health, prolonged isolation is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
The UK is way ahead of us on this front. They have even appointed a Minister of Loneliness! I have been reviewing a report about their work to deal with the growing rate of loneliness and isolation and its subsequent effect on quality of life and health outcomes for those over 55.
They set about finding ways to find and identify those who are isolated and lonely. They then find ways to help front-line workers engage in constructive conversations with folks who have been identified. They cover resources available and also ways to get them more connected in the world. Early reports are that this is having a better-than-expected impact in most cases.
In addition, I wonder how each of us can mindfully take steps while preparing for and moving into early retirement to structure our lives in a flexible way that keeps building and connecting to community. So often people move to a new location, travel extensively, and build their socialization around their spouse or partner or one hobby, all of which can set up a pattern for isolation as life and health circumstances change.
Here are some questions to consider about how you are building and living your retirement:
You have a lot to offer others in these years ahead. One of the gifts of retirement is that we get to think about how to be in the world in a different way than we may have been throughout our adult lives.
AARP Foundation. Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50 (May 2012).
Broome, Steve. The Missing Million. The Campaign to End Loneliness. UK
Holt-Lunstad. Perspectives on Psychological Science;10(2), 227-237 (2015).
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: Implications for Evidence-based Patient Care and Scientific Inquiry. Heart 2016; 102:987–989
Ruth Tongen helps people plan and live meaningful, fun and healthier retirements.