10 ways to avoid loneliness and maintain mental health when you live alone
If you’re an older adult, there are many reasons why you might be living alone: Perhaps your family lives far away or you’ve recently downsized or you’re emotionally attached to your home and want to stay there.
While an independent lifestyle can be enjoyable, there’s a potential downside to living alone: if you’re not engaging with others on a regular basis, it may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-quarter of older adults report feeling socially isolated.1 The CDC has also found that social isolation can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, dementia and depression. It has been found to be as damaging to your health as smoking.1
The good news is that there are many ways to balance out those potential downsides. And they’re all about the simple act of interacting with other people.
Strategies for staying engaged
To live well and age well, staying engaged benefits your health and mood. “I encourage seniors to make every day count. You should try to actively engage your brain, whether that’s with a physical, mental or social activity,” says Karen Midyet, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Coaching Aging Adults in Larimer County, Colo.
If you’re one of the 15 million older adults living alone,2 here are 10 ideas for things to do, whether you want to stay home or go out.
1. Say “hi” when you’re out and about
“Even casual relationships are beneficial,” says Chicago-based therapist Lise Schiffer, L.C.S.W. That can include a “how are you?” or “what’s new?” to your neighbor, going to a store where the clerk knows you by name or simply saying hello to the mail carrier every day, she says. Small moments of small talk add up.
2. Try a hobby at home
Think about whether there's something that you've always wanted to do, but just haven't yet. Whether it’s learning how to paint or play the guitar, there are lots of virtual classes available to you. And many of them cater specifically to older adults, says Midyet. If online classes aren’t your thing, you can also follow along with video tutorials or simply get a book that walks you through the basics of a new hobby, like knitting.
3. Head back to school
Thought your school days were over? Maybe it's a good time to reconsider. Local and community colleges offer a wide range of online courses, providing opportunities to pursue new interests or rekindle old ones. Some states offer free tuition for seniors, too. What’s more, says Midyet, classes may run 8 weeks (rather than an entire semester) and “don’t require tests or homework, but you still get to go to school.”
4. Hit the dance floor3
“I have one client who’s in a tango group, one who takes tap dancing and another who does ballroom dancing,” says Midyet. “It’s a way to get exercise, meet people and have fun in the process,” she says. Find dance programs catered toward adults or seniors through your local community or senior center, park district, independent dance studio or ballroom dance school.
5. Learn pickleball3
Pickleball is popular for a reason: It’s easy to learn, matches are quick, and you control the intensity. Playing games with others introduces you to a lot of new people. “Pickleball is a huge social activity for seniors in particular. A lot of seniors not only make friends but also find love interests,” says Midyet. Plus, playing an hour of pickleball has been shown to improve fitness in older adults, according to research from the American Council on Exercise.4
6. Try an online exercise class3
If solo activities are more your thing, there are a variety of exercise programs available online. Classes cater to a range of physical abilities and interests, from aerobics and chair yoga to tai chi. And you can do them right from your living room. Exercise is great for your mental health, boosting mood and energy, improving sleep and reducing feelings of depression, according to the National Institute on Aging.5 Remote exercise classes can be done on-demand as well as through virtual fitness programs. Look for options through your park district or YMCA.
7. Find a volunteer group3
There’s likely an organization out there that needs your help. “Seniors who mentor others or volunteer at a hospital, food pantry or after-school program, for instance, are much more likely to feel a sense of purpose, meaning and daily structure,” says Schiffer. These can be occasional events, or you can join a community-based club, such as your local Kiwanis or Rotary club. These clubs typically meet regularly and provide more of an opportunity to develop close ties with others. “I have clients who met a whole new community of people through these types of organizations,” adds Midyet.
8. Join a support group
Losing a spouse or loved one can be overwhelming, especially if they’ve been your main source of companionship and connection, says Schiffer. Grief groups and counseling can help you navigate the loss but also provide support, so you don’t feel alone during this time of healing. This can take place one-on-one with a counselor or in a small group of people.
9. Head to a worship service
If you are religious, curious about worship services or looking to return to your church or synagogue after stepping away for a bit, you can connect to others via your faith. “Some people prefer to go to a physical space, while others who are homebound can engage with it online on a streaming channel,” says Midyet.
10. Tweak your routine
"Simply doing something in a different way can feel fresh, new and invigorating. If you like TV comedy sitcoms, for example, find some new stand-up comedians. Or simply heading out to an afternoon movie or an event at the local library," says Midyet. Any way to mix up your routine is good. Consider asking a friend to join you too.