Let’s be friends: Avoiding social isolation

Written by Beverley Hadgraft for Seniors Funeral Insurance.  

The science is in, and it’s irrefutable: making friends is good for our health. Loneliness can be damaging to our health, research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare finds. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with an up to 50% increased risk of dementia.

Making friends as we get older is not always easy however, as Graham and Toni Lee discovered upon retiring, when they realised their circle of friends was getting smaller. “Some had moved away, some had died – we no longer had our workmates and thought we really should get involved with something to meet new people,” the former scientists recall.

They tried a Probus club, which connects retirees in local communities, and then U3A (University of the Third Age), a self-help group that offers courses and activities for retired and semi-retired over 50s. Both options increased their social circle, but Graham noticed that some groups were less inclusive than others. So when the Sydney couple set up their own U3A walking group, they modelled it to maximise the possibility of making friends.

“We made a point of saying this is a social group. If you come with friends, don’t walk with them all the time. We want you to mix with other people,” Graham explains. “We walked every two weeks and tried to find somewhere at the end of each walk to have coffee”.

“We had a trip away each year. We’d all stay in the same hostel or hotel and everyone was expected to eat together, join in the after-dinner entertainment and not isolate themselves.”

It worked well. “We’ve been enormously pleased we got the group going and met so many people we’re such friends with now and who we’d never have met otherwise,” he says.

Graham, now 84, and Toni, 81, still go walking with friends but don’t do hard walks any more. “Some days we only have the coffee, but people really like that too!”

Passion meets purpose

When Adelaide-based Susan Lloyd, 61, left her job at Centrelink, she looked to join groups that aligned with her passions of sewing and the environment, reasoning that even if it took a while to make friends, she’d still enjoy the activities and would keep turning up.

It’s a theory that’s paid dividends. She regularly meets up with a group to sew Boomerang Bags (reusable shopping bags) and is a member of a Repair Café (a community group that performs free repairs of small items).

“That works well because you don’t have to work on a project, you can just bring your mending down and make it into a social event.”

Realising that bringing people together and keeping it simple is the key, Susan founded a ‘makerspace’ two hours a week in a local library. “People bring their own project – knitting, crochet, scrapbooking – and we work together and chat.”

She’s also been instrumental in setting up local Buy Nothing groups, where neighbours advertise unwanted items for free online. Just the action of picking up an unwanted stick blender and stopping to chat can result in a new friend, Susan says.

Good neighbours

Having neighbours as friends is of course ideal, but that’s not always easy.
Yupin Keller lived in her Sydney suburb for 30 years, only knowing those on either side of her until a WhatsApp neighbourhood group was set up, initially to ensure no-one struggled alone during COVID.

Neighbours were suddenly lending each other household tools and helping out with anything from moving heavy furniture to finding a plumber, says Yupin, 70. When new neighbours moved in, they were added to the group and welcomed. “It really helped us get to know one another.”

The app really came into its own in March, however, when Yupin had a fall and cut her head. Within 30 seconds of her posting a plea for help, she had the first of five neighbours by her side.

“They all stayed with me until I was loaded into the ambulance, called my husband Victor, and checked up on me when I got home. It was priceless. Afterwards, I invited them all round for dinner to say thank you.”

Coming to Australia from Thailand, Yupin always understood that it’s essential to make an effort to make friends – introduce yourself with a smile, remember names, and look for things in common.

Apart from that, two other things that have helped her make friends since her retirement are learning to play mahjong and getting a dog, Diesel. “I tried bridge first but it was too solemn. With mahjong, we meet every week and are more jolly and exuberant and talk while we play. There’s no gambling, so no stress, and afterwards we sometimes go to a Chinese restaurant to socialise.

“I got Diesel four years ago and I’d really encourage older people to get a dog. When you’re young, you go to a playgroup and talk about your children. When you get older, you chat about your dog instead. It really opens the door to friendship.”

Pet power

Dogs also opened the door of friendship for the 8,200 people who belong to the Bayside Dog Owner’s Group in Melbourne. The Facebook page and website was set up for dog lovers eight years ago by Kate Mularczyk, 59, and has been the catalyst for many friendships. “Our slogan is ‘connecting community’,” says Kate.

These friendships have developed organically, she adds. So while there are some organised meet-ups, such as Christmas parties and fundraisers, often someone will just post that they walk at a certain park or beach and ask if anyone wants to join them. Many sub-groups have since emerged. “I’m in a Goldie Gang. There are seven of us with golden retrievers, or cross, and we meet up for dinner,” explains Kate.

“Another group were The Oldies, because they all had old dogs, but they stuck together when they got new dogs and now go camping and on pub crawls with their dogs.

“We’ve got one lady who’s in her 70s and in lots of groups. She’s widowed, and after she broke her leg she posted asking for help walking her dog. Someone did a roster and many friendships developed from that.

“One lady told me: ‘My husband died last year and then my dog died and the group was so fantastic, it helped get me through’,” Kate says. “We have a system now that when people lose a dog, they can post about it on the website page and we organise a portrait of their pets.”

Her group now facilitates strong community support. “People really reach out and it’s not just about dogs. We’ve done things like take food round to people who were isolated during COVID, too. We’ve evolved into a lovely community. What we really focus on is kindness.”

Getting connected

If you don’t know where to find new friends, the following groups could offer a good starting point. Choose an activity you will enjoy and put some effort into making connections – learn someone’s name and ask them to go for a coffee.

•  Love sport? Masters sports groups, especially athletics, are great as you compete against others your age and there’s lots of encouragement to try a new event. Reach out to your local sports or athletics clubs to find out what’s available near you.

• Golf and bowls are increasingly popular as we age, but if you want to remain connected to your local football, netball or cricket teams, offer to coach, umpire, run the sausage sizzle or take on an administration role.

• Search online for seniors’ walking groups. Even if you’re living with conditions like arthritis, there may be groups specifically for you.

• Groups such as Men’s Shed and Country Women’s Association are all over Australia and a great place to connect with others.

• If you love music, try a community choir, ukulele group or dance club.

• Community gardens or gardening clubs are good for making connections, or volunteer for an activity such as bush regeneration.

• Ulysses Club organises social activities for motorcycle riders aged over 40.

• U3A offers a range of daytime groups and courses, including languages, music, board games, discussion groups, film and book clubs and lectures. Members pay a small annual fee and can attend as many activities as they like, and can also set up their own groups.

• Volunteering can be a rewarding way to meet others but choose an activity where you’ll be working alongside people on a regular basis, and have a chance to chat and connect.

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