We experience change throughout our whole lives. However, some of the changes we experience as we enter our later years are unique and can be more challenging than the changes we experience when we are younger. On the other hand, many older adults report that older age is a time of growth, freedom and possibilities.

Loneliness and social isolation are not an inevitable part of aging. However, older adults may be more susceptible to feeling lonely due to changes in their lives, such as leaving a job or other engagements; losing the ability to drive due to physical, cognitive, or financial changes; being discriminated against for one’s age; declining physical capabilities that can impact mobility or other functioning; living alone; and losing a spouse, loved ones, or friends to physical separation or death.

Due to unique, yet common changes that may arise as we age, maintaining social connections and warding off feelings of loneliness may be difficult.

Loneliness refers to a subjective feeling of being alone, being separated from others, or experiencing a gap between desired and actual social contacts. Social isolation refers to an absence or scarcity of social contacts and interactions. Loneliness and social isolation can negatively impact physical and mental health and functioning. Loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health risk and is associated with conditions including depression, heart disease, cognitive decline, difficulty completing daily activities and mortality. Approximately 17 percent of adults 65 and older are isolated and 26 percent have an increased risk of early death due to loneliness.

Luckily, there are steps you can take to maintain social connections and reduce feelings of loneliness as you age. First, make an effort to maintain your close personal relationships with family members, friends, neighbors and other important people - either in person or via phone, letters, email, or social media. Consider expanding your social network prior to retirement as those who socialize on a regular basis before they retire are more likely to maintain at least some of those relationships after retiring. You can join a club or committee, attend events in your community, consider volunteering, pursue your hobbies and find opportunities to engage in these hobbies with others.

Fortunately, there are great resources available in our community. Local senior centers offer programs that target physical, emotional and social health at little to no cost. These include Champlain Senior Center and Heineberg Community Senior Center in Burlington, Winooski Senior Center, Essex Area Senior Center, Charlotte Senior Center and Arrowhead Senior Citizen Center in Milton.

If you live alone, particularly after the loss of a spouse, you may want to consider getting a roommate or moving to a senior living community where you will have opportunities to meet new people and become involved with community-led groups and activities. Homeshare Vermont helps people find compatible roommates based on common interests and lifestyles.

Support and Services at Home (SASH) connects individuals to a SASH Coordinator and Wellness Nurse and to group exercise classes, social outings, and other group-based programs that help keep older adults socially engaged.

Age Well offers assistance with finding senior housing and other resources and can arrange for senior companions who provide regular friendly visits to promote social engagement and help with tasks.

Howard Center provides individual therapy, either at home for homebound elders through the Eldercare Program, or on an outpatient basis. Group therapy and case management services are also available.

Remember, old age can be a challenging yet rewarding and exciting time of life. Maintaining social connections throughout your life can be an important step in promoting health and well-being as you age.

Howard Center improves the wellbeing of our community by helping people with mental health, substance use, and developmental services. Help is here. www.howardcenter.org.

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