So many common changes of circumstance can lead to feeling lonely in your 50s and 60s. Retirement or a layoff. Divorcing after a long marriage. A spouse or close friends passing away. The kids (finally) leaving home for good.
In fact, roughly four in 10 adults aged 52 to 71 consider themselves lonely, according to a recent study by Cigna. The Cigna survey also shows, and other recent studies confirm, that feeling socially isolated can be bad for your health.
Boomers are by no means the loneliest generation, according to Cigna (looking at you, Gen Z and millennials). But the health issues associated with feelings of social isolation can heighten the risks of developing or worsening conditions that are more common as you age.
A new study in the journal Heart, for example, found that people who are lonely or socially isolated are at greater risk of heart attack and stroke than people with stronger social connections. A recent Danish study found that loneliness increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and migraine, and poor sleep habits worsen the problems.
And researchers from the University of Chicago have found that loneliness is a sleep stealer: People who feel emotionally cut off from family and friends have more fragmented sleep than those who feel more connected to others.
“Loneliness is a stressful condition and, like a lot of stressful conditions, it puts wear and tear on our nervous systems,” says loneliness researcher Chris Segrin, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona.
You can feel lonely even when you have an active social life and are surrounded by people who care about you.
“Loneliness and alone-ness are two different things,” Segrin says. “Loneliness is really about the quality of relationships meeting our desired levels.”
Recognizing that you’re feeling lonely and deciding to take action to help you improve your social connections can be empowering.
“Knowing that we have some control in life is essential in the management of loneliness,” says Jodi J. De Luca, a licensed clinical psychologist in Erie, Colo. “Coming up with a list of options and solutions can provide [that] sense of control and optimism.”
These five strategies should help.
Find your village
Meeting new people after 50 is tougher than it was during childhood, when social circles weren’t already tightly formed and everyone in your class wanted to be friends. That’s especially true for the more than half of people aged 52 to 71 who feel shy, according to the Cigna study, which can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
“Building social relationships can take time and one of the problems with lonely people is they don’t often try or they give up easily,” Segrin says. “Put that effort out there and [don’t] give up.”
Segrin says it’s especially important to seek out people who are like-minded. In fact, the top feeling of loneliness, expressed by nearly 60% of boomers in the Cigna study, was the notion that those around you do not share your interests and ideas.
To forge relationships with people who are passionate about the same things you are, look for groups that focus on activities that you love.
Like to read? Join a book club. Love animals? Put in time at a local shelter. Enjoy hiking? Find a Meetup group that hits the trails. (Meetup is an online platform that helps you identify people in your community who share your interests, then connect with them in real life.)
Don’t overlook volunteer opportunities; they can help you beat loneliness while you’re doing good. Research shows that among adults aged 55 and older who felt lonely before volunteering, 67% who volunteered for a year felt less socially isolated.
“Helping others is very gratifying,” De Luca says. “We feel better about ourselves. Overall, the experience of helping others greatly diminishes the experience of loneliness.”
Boost existing relationships
Some lonely people have friends, but they don’t feel they get enough out of those relationships to satisfy their social needs.
“There are ways that people can upgrade their current relationships,” Segrin says. “[Date night or] girls’ night out [are] examples of people setting aside time to nurture and enjoy their existing relationships.”
Focus on activities that encourage conversation. Or try new experiences that take you out of your comfort zone (hello, karaoke night!). These kinds of interactions are more likely to move relationships in positive new directions than passive activities like watching movies.
Change your location
If you’d love to chat up your neighbors but the people around you have never given you the time of day, it may be time to relocate.
A growing number of people who feel lonely or isolated are moving to cohousing communities. Designed for people who want greater interaction with neighbors, these developments consist of private homes that are adjacent to shared spaces, where people gather regularly to eat and socialize.
Research has shown that older adults who reside in cohousing communities feel less lonely and more satisfied with their living situations. And most of the cohousing residents studied have said that they would recommend cohousing to older adults to help them improve their quality of life as they age.
Hang out with some kids
They’ll make you laugh and remind you of what it was like to be a child again.
“Intergenerational interactions, regardless of setting, can help combat loneliness,” says Sheri Steinig, special projects director at Generations United, a nonprofit that brings older adults and children together through a variety of programs. “Intergenerational programs provide both older and younger participants with a sense of purpose.”
To find a program that connects older and younger members of your community, contact local schools, libraries, community centers, and religious institutions for volunteer opportunities that allow you and other adults to interact with children.
Or you can search here for programs in cities across the country that have been identified by Generation to Generation, an initiative from encore.org that helps adults over 50 make a positive difference in the lives of young people.
Take baby steps
Your social network won’t change overnight, but consistent efforts should help over time.
“Start small and start at home,” Steinig says. “Start a conversation with a neighbor. Get out to local public spaces like parks, libraries or community centers. Smile or wave at someone much older or younger than you.”
Aim to have at least one meaningful, in-person interaction a day. The Cigna study found that people who do are significantly more likely to feel they have people they can turn to, people they can talk to, and people who understand them.
In turn, not surprisingly, people who felt those connections were also much more likely to report that they get the right amount of sleep and are in very good or excellent health.