“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
Friendship is an elixir for our mental health. Having good friends who we regularly spend time with can make us feel loved, connected, and give our life a sense of purpose. They’re even more important for socially isolated seniors, whose susceptibility to loneliness makes them twice as likely to die prematurely, and which makes loneliness a bigger threat to the elderly than disease and poverty1.
Friends are the antidote to loneliness in seniors, but it can be hard to make new friends even when you’re young, and doubly hard when you’re in the midst of your twilight years. In this article, we’ll provide some expert tips on how to encourage your elderly parent to make friends, so that they can stave off the devastating effects of loneliness, and boost their enthusiasm for life.
Every Australian city has its share of seniors clubs and groups, which are the perfect spot for your elderly parent to meet people of their age. There’s a wide range of clubs to choose from in most cities—general-purpose community centres where you can gather for meals and entertainment, clubs that focus on exercise, groups that get together to willfully deceive each other over games of bridge, yoga clubs, religious clubs, and war veteran clubs. There’s even groups devoted to political lobbying, offering its elderly members the chance to make a difference in their local community.
You can find seniors clubs for your elderly parent by searching for “seniors clubs and social groups” on My Community Directory, and filtering by your local area. They’re the birthplace of many a new friendship, where tons of senior people meet.
Many seniors clubs are focused on particular activities, but if your elderly parent isn’t keen to join one of them, there’s still plenty of activities they can do. They can check their local swimming pool for water aerobics sessions, and spend the afternoon twisting, twirling, waving, and floating around with people their age. You can help them find a local dance class, whether salsa, jazz, tap, or flamenco, where they’ll literally come face to face with potential friends. You can encourage them to attend a painting session, some of which encourage you to bring along a bottle of your favourite wine—an effective social lubricant for forging new friendships.
There’s a huge variety of activities for seniors, and by encouraging your elderly parent to get on board, you’ll be helping them to meet new people.
When the COVID-19 pandemic finally abates, local events will start popping up again, which are another great way for seniors to meet people of their own age. Typical events include mini music festivals, film festivals, religious festivals, artistic performances, theatre productions, poetry readings, and more.
It can be daunting going to local events by yourself, especially as an older person. But going alone is also a great way to meet new people—without a companion to gravitate towards, you’re more inclined to approach others and start conversations.
Work is stressful, and many of us gleefully anticipate the day we can retire, when we can plonk our feet permanently on a squishy ottoman. But after a lifetime of working 9 to 5, the sudden volume of time available to us can feel longer than Lawrence of Arabia, and infinitely more tedious. Work also provides us with a sense of achievement and value, and when that’s taken away, we’re in danger of feeling worthless.
For these reasons, some seniors dedicate themselves to volunteering work. Volunteering for a charity helps to fill the empty hours, creates a renewed sense of purpose, and also happens to be a fantastic way to meet people.
There’s plenty of charities that welcome volunteers. Your elderly parent can help to label clothing at the local op shop, serve meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless and needy, or walk pooches for a nearby dog shelter. Helping people can create a wonderful sense of meaning in our lives—by supporting people in need, we’re able to transcend our petty worries and complaints in the service of something greater than ourselves. Philanthropic seniors are able to feel valued once again, and for the best of reasons.
Take an educational class
Contrary to popular belief, our brains don’t slow with age. Cognitive decline in seniors is usually a result of diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease diabetes, and other issues like depression, poor vision, or effects of medication. You can teach an old dog new tricks, and after a lifetime of collecting knowledge, that old dog has the wisdom to outshine you.
You can find a huge variety of non-accredited educational classes in most cities, including creative writing, learning a new language, cake decorating, botany, pottery, wood working, or pretty much anything that your elderly parent is interested in. Educational classes are filled with potential new friends, and if you choose a subject that elderly people tend to gravitate towards (flower arranging, baking, etc.), there’s a better chance of meeting a new companion.
Meet the neighbours
Despite being known for a perennial soap opera called Neighbours, in which everyone in the local neighbourhood knows each other intimately, most Australians aren’t friends with the people living around them. Research by HSBC revealed that 79% of people don’t consider their neighbours to be friends, and 26% don’t even speak to each other2.
Your elderly parent’s neighbours are an untapped source of friends, and they happen to be easily accessible. Encourage your parent to pop their head over the fence from time to time for a chat—perhaps they could buy some chocolate drops for the dog, or even the odd sweet for the kids. Remind them to keep an eye out for any neighbourhood gatherings too. There might be a local boot fair, or a “bring a plate” feast where they can show off their supreme baking skills with a luscious mud cake.
Becoming friends with your neighbours has other benefits too. If your parent really trusts them, they can give them a spare key in case they get locked out. During extended holidays, they can ask them to keep an eye on the house, or even ask them to take care of the dog. When you’re friends with your neighbours, there’s always a helping hand close by.
Search for meetups
If your elderly parent is trying to figure out how to meet new people, one of the best ways is through “meetup” groups. Meetup.com is a site dedicated to bringing like-minded people together, allowing its users to create and run regular meetups for whatever purpose they like. In Brisbane, there’s meetups for single travellers, breakfast lovers, wine sippers, senior card players, poets, cyclists, exercise fanatics, meditators, and a whole lot more. You can help your elderly parent to find a meetup they’re interested in, and tag along with them for emotional support.
Join a dating service
Love knows no bounds, and certainly not for something as insignificant as age. If your elderly parent is feeling pangs of loneliness, joining a dating service can help them to meet new people, whether friend or partner. Silver Singles and Sixty & Me are dating services dedicated to senior citizens, and if your parent doesn’t have any luck with those, they can try eHarmony, OKCupid, or even Tinder. Imagine the awe of seeing them arrive for dinner with a strapping 40 year old Belgian called Viktor.
Gossip has a bad rap, particularly when derogatory. But gossip has played a critical role in our evolution, used as a way to share social information among our tribe—who keeps their promises, who returns favours, who offers support in times of need, and more. Gossip is a way for us to get information about the people we’re close to, so that we can decide whether they’re trustworthy3, which is why gossiping feels so good. It makes us feel like we understand our complex social world a little better.
When your elderly parent is trying to make new friends, a little gossip can go a long way.
Friendship is one of the most important things for our happiness and well being. Good friends buffer us against hard times, and makes us feel loved and connected, which is why they’re so important for seniors at risk of becoming lonely. If your elderly parent makes the effort to put themselves out there, whether through clubs, activities, events, dating apps, or anything with people, they’re giving themselves the best chance of making invigorating new friends.
Who knows? Your elderly parent could meet their next best friend, whether that’s somebody to play chess with on weekends, or someone to devote themselves to fully.
- Ali Seyfzadeh, Mansoor Haghighatian, Aliasghar Mohajerani, 2019, Social Isolation in the Elderly: The Neglected Issue, Iran J Public Health
- 2018, Australia’s Dream Home in 2018, HSBC
- Melissa Hogenboom, 2015, Earth – What gave rise to gossip?, BBC