Top 5 Ways for the Aging to Remain Socially Engaged

Just as fun as trading chocolate pudding for potato chips in grade school.
Just as fun as trading chocolate pudding for potato chips in grade school.
© iStockphoto/cydebergerac

No matter how old you are, engaging socially with other people is important.Through socialization, we adjust our perceptions, increase our knowledge, acquire new skills -- and just have fun. Interpersonal relationships are often the most important part of a person's life, and the mental stimulation they provide never gets old, even if you do.

Aging presents a series of role transitions: ending a career for retirement, becoming a grandparent and perhaps even counting on help from the same children who once counted on you. Throughout all of these changes, socialization provides us with a way to learn through watching others navigate their own ways through these changes. Social interaction also allows for the sharing, processing and comparison of perspectives and thoughts on aging and what it means to you on a personal level.

Frequent social contact has a health benefit, too. It can help keep seniors from falling into a depression, the likelihood of which increases as we age [source: National Institute on Aging]. Loneliness is often a factor, as social networks tend to shrink as the years go on. Studies have shown that socialization among seniors has a positive effect on cognitive abilities, a good sign in the fight against Alzheimer's and other dementias [source: Crooks].

Kids make friends at recess and adults become buddies in the break room, but how do you keep your social life active as you get older? Keep reading for five good ways.

5

Join a Senior Center

Making connections
Making connections
© iStockphoto/bonniej

Ground zero for anyone wishing to find new activities and to make new connections with people is the local community senior center. There are nearly 15,000 senior centers in the United States, and around 10 million seniors use their services each year [source: Dal Santo].

Senior centers are essentially social clubs for older adults that offer free (or at least inexpensive) classes, activities and day trips. The centers are usually operated on a nonprofit basis, sometimes by a religious organization or a municipality, and offer a wide variety of services, including lunches (and sometimes breakfast and dinner). Some centers offer transportation to and from the center from seniors' homes, ensuring that people who are homebound still have the opportunity to socialize with their peers.

Many of these are large multipurpose facilities, though some are smaller nutrition sites that focus on providing meals and basic health information. Whether the center is large or small, it plays a big part in providing social contact for seniors: More than six out of 10 seniors who regularly visit their local senior centers say it's the only source of daily interaction they have (with blacks and Hispanics reporting even higher numbers) [source: Dal Santo].

And that's not all -- you might also be able to find job training, exercise classes and volunteer positions at your local facility.

4

Learn

Studies show again and again that an active mind is more often a happy mind -- and a mind less susceptible to age-related loss of cognitive ability. If you're looking for new social outlets and the means to better yourself, there are a number of educational opportunities available that can reward you with new friends, new community contacts and new knowledge.

Many universities, community colleges and organizations offer educational opportunities for older adults. Most colleges allow you to audit classes, meaning that you attend classes with other students for a fee but you don't have to turn in assignments or take tests (you'll be the envy of the lecture hall).

There are lots of adult continuing education opportunities available, many of them free of charge -- so if you always wanted to know more about nutrition or learn Portuguese, now's a good time to do it. There are continuing education programs available for homebound seniors, too, through the aid of other seniors who attend classes on site and later share what they've learned.

Nonprofits such as SeniorNet help seniors learn to use the latest computer and communications technologies. In the course of learning important skills, you'll be able to connect -- and stay connected -- with other like-minded seniors who are also learning how to produce digital photographs, use e-mail, write blogs and find old (and new) friends on social networking Web sites.

3

Game On

Just because you've never picked up a racket before doesn't mean you can't start now.
Just because you've never picked up a racket before doesn't mean you can't start now.
© iStockphoto/carmebalcells

One of the best ways to make new social contacts and keep your mind sharp is to play games. Regardless of your interests, skill level or physical ability, there's a game out there to suit your needs.

Even games that are usually played by one person can provide an opportunity for socialization. There are clubs for fans of crossword puzzles, Sudoku (number puzzles) and nearly every other game out there. The New York Times crossword puzzle provides a perfect excuse to join a friend or neighbor at home or in a café -- two heads are better than one, after all.

Most communities have enough bridge clubs to provide a daily dose of camaraderie. Computer-based games, such as "bowling" using an interactive Nintendo Wii video game, are gaining in popularity among seniors. Some senior centers even have tournaments.

If you'd rather get out of town, travel agencies often offer bus tours for seniors to casinos with packages that include meals and lodging, not to mention the chance to see a different part of the country with fun-minded peers.

There are plenty of physical sporting activities that you can get involved in, such as bowling, over-50 baseball and tennis. Golfing is a great way to spend an afternoon with friends, and so is disc golf, a game that uses a Frisbee-like disc instead of a golf ball .

Most game players love sharing their activity with newcomers, so don't worry if you're not quite up to snuff to start. Soon enough you'll be teaching some other newbie the tricks of the game.

2

Volunteer

Volunteering offers great opportunities to help out in your community as well as create new social networks, roles and outlets. You get the chance to meet people from all walks of life and to make a positive change.

If you want to work with children and teens, you can get involved with a local literacy program that works to improve kids' reading levels. There are also "foster grandparent" programs in which you can work directly as a friend and positive role model for at-risk youth.

Other seniors need your help as well. The Senior Corps is a program that connects senior volunteers with those in need (including the foster grandparent program). It offers the a senior companion program that lets you help other seniors with household chores, shopping trips and medical appointments. You could visit or volunteer at nearby retirement homes or deliver food to the homebound through the Meals On Wheels program. Households in your own neighborhood may need a little relief as they struggle to provide home care for a disabled relative and would likely welcome your offer to sit a few hours with their loved one so that they can run errands.

Volunteer help is always welcome at community soup kitchens, thrift stores and various outreach programs for the homeless, although opportunities can also extend far beyond your ZIP code. The Peace Corps, for one, welcomes retirees.

1

Find a New Hobby (or Rediscover an Old One)

Scrapbooking not for you? The mountains might be calling.
Scrapbooking not for you? The mountains might be calling.
© iStockphoto/Photawa

Many seniors find they have more free time than they did in the past, and a good way to spend that time is pursuing a new -- or long-forgotten -- hobby or interest. Whether the activity is scrapbooking, painting or photography, communities of people with shared passions will form around it.

Senior centers and community groups often offer lessons in painting, singing, fiction writing and creating folk art. No matter what hobby you pursue, it'll be a good way to socialize with people, and you'll never want for an easy conversation starter. Another good way to reach out to others is to research your genealogy. There are many dedicated clubs and online genealogy groups that can provide you with all sorts of information about your family tree.

It may also be time to scratch the travel itch, if that's always been your secret desire. Throughout the world, there are Elderhostel programs that offer travel and educational opportunities to seniors. Cruise trips for seniors abound, and there are nomadic communities of RV owners who cross the nation (and continuously cross paths with each other). Travel clubs enable members to take trips together as a group, or you could take a day trip with a good friend or someone you'd like to know better.

Want to know more tips and tricks to navigate the life of a retiree? We've got more article suggestions on the next page.

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Sources

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  • Dal Santo, Teresa S., PH.D. "Senior Center Literature Review." California Commission on Aging. Feb. 4, 2009.http://www.ncoa.org/userfiles/file/Literature_Review_of_Senior_Centers.pdf
  • Lee, Gary R., et al. "Well-Being among the Elderly." 1987. http://roa.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/9/4/459
  • National Council on Aging. "Healthy Aging: A Good Investment." 2004. http://www.healthyagingprograms.org/resources/HealthyLiving_GoodInvestment_booklet.pdf
  • National Institute on Aging. "Alzheimer's Disease: Treatment." Feb. 5, 2009. (April 18, 2009) http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/AlzheimersInformation/Treatment/
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  • Peace Corps. "Older Applicants." (April 19, 2009) http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whovol.older
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  • Senior Journal. "Founder of Women's Football Now Starting Wii Bowling Money Site for Senior citizens." Dec. 22, 2008.http://seniorjournal.com/NEWS/Sports/2008/20081222-Founder.htm
  • SeniorNet. April 16, 2009.http://www.seniornet.org/jsnet/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1
  • University of Minnesota. "Auditing courses." April 16, 2009. http://onestop.umn.edu/registration/guidelines/audit_courses.html