This article explores the significance of establishing a local support network of friends and peers for solo agers, highlighting its potential benefits in addressing the social, emotional, and practical needs of this growing population.
support systems, support network, support team, socially active, relationships, friends, loneliness
When we are older, a strong support system is needed more than at any other time in life. Support networks are tremendously influential in our ability to age securely and confidently.
The reasons for creating a support system extend beyond the need for social engagement and loneliness avoidance. Women, especially those without immediate family nearby, are at risk of isolating and spending too much time alone. Even women who have adult children nearby sometimes yearn for support, close bonds, and nurturance.
Staying socially active enriches our daily experiences, and creating intergenerational friends keeps us young in heart and mind. We make friends with people because we like them. We have interests or experiences in common. They make us laugh. They make us feel special. And we can do the same for them.
Scientists are starting to discover that having friends who care about us is a vital part of living. And it's a good predictor of robust health, success, and happiness (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017).
Threat of Loneliness
Well-regarded research from the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM; 2020) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Murphy, 2023) has suggested that loneliness increases the risk of dying prematurely as much as high blood pressure, smoking, or obesity. Vulnerable older adults, including immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) populations; people of color; and victims of elder abuse have higher risks of loneliness and tend to isolate more. NASEM suggests that immigrant and LGBTQ populations are lonely more often than other groups. Latino immigrants, for example, “have fewer social ties and lower levels of social integration than U.S.-born Latinos” (p. 87). First-generation immigrants experience stressors that can increase their social isolation, such as language barriers, differences in community, family dynamics, and new relationships that lack depth or history (NASEM, 2020).
During the pandemic, many people reported feeling lonelier than ever. For people who identify as LGBTQ+, who already experience higher levels of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, being stuck at home—either away from their chosen family and community, or with people who aren't accepting of their identities—took a heavy toll.
One young resident in the high-rise where I live confessed, “It’s not so easy to make friends here. You might think that friends are friends, who cares I’m lesbian or not? Right now, I’d accept any good friend that respects me. You may not be aware of it, but as a lesbian, we struggle—way more than young gay men. It’s because the term lesbian is taboo, as something awkward and shameful.”
Kathryn: Overwhelmed and with no support.
Kathryn, age 65, for the first time in many years says she feels out of sorts. Although happy about a promotion at work, she was overwhelmed by all the new skills to learn although she had little doubt that she could perform the tasks. Her issue was that there was no one at home to vent to about her work worries. And no one to give her feedback. Having such little support puts more pressure on her. The stress makes her cry … even at work. The tears are the manifestation of her fear and uncertainty, she claims. She felt guilty crying at work because it’s unprofessional, but she also had a hard time stopping. She feels alone and lost.
Unfortunately, stories like Kathryn’s are not unique. Loneliness for adults has increased over the past decades. Compared to the 1980s, the number of people living alone in the United States has increased by about a third. When Americans were asked about the number of people they can confide in, the number dropped from 3 in 1985 to 1 or 2 in 2004 (McPherson et al., 2006). In a 2018 survey, 39% of participants reported they “are no longer close to anyone” (Jackson & Ballard, 2018, para. 1) . In early 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy declared an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” in the United States—further evidence that rates of loneliness on a population level continue to increase.
Further research (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2013) on loneliness points to the need to change our perceptions of the world around us by changing our thinking. Here’s how that translates for me: It’s an inside job. It took years for me to “get” the concept of not taking things personally. When friends turned down my invitations, it wasn’t because something was wrong with me, but perhaps they were busy. Those who aren’t lonely tend to realize this and, as a consequence, don’t become despondent or start beating themselves up when someone says no to their invitations. When a person doesn’t attribute “failure” to themselves, but rather to circumstances, they become resilient and can keep going.
Katie: Becoming solo, grateful, and trying to focus on the positive.
“What I have is the present and maybe that's what I need to focus on: how do I use what time is left in this mortal world. At 77 I'm trying to make adjustments in outlook and attitude. So many questions about how I'll find safety and security. Not knowing if my money will last, and how I will maintain good health. It seems overwhelming. And, yes, it is compounded by the reality that I am alone. What I hope for the most are meaningful friendships and kindness from others.”
Perhaps at one point, a woman like Katie had a strong family unit but over time it lessened or evaporated. Children moved away or became estranged; spouses and partners separated, divorced, or died; and siblings lost touch or died as well. Single women often prefer living alone, but that’s not to say they don't want and need help from friends and peers to share interests and activities, and even more, to have someone they trust for assistance, and to discuss problems and decisions.
Older Couple: Needing help but none available.
Amid a national shortage of home-care workers that deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic, a couple in their late 80s spent much of this year on a private agency list, waiting to be assigned a professional home-care aide. But from April to August, no aides were available, leaving one spouse to carry the load on her own. Many nights are fraught with an hour-long bedtime routine that includes giving her husband pills and pulling on his Depends before tucking him into his recliner. Then she lies sleepless in bed.
This story is increasingly common as the country’s shortage of home-care workers worsens, jeopardizing the independence of a generation of older Americans who had banked on aging in place rather than moving to a facility. One AARP poll showed that 77% of people older than age 50 want to remain in their homes (Davis, 2021), and other studies have shown aging in place can promote quality of life and self-esteem (Ahn, Kwon, & Kang, 2017). But the older couple’s dilemma of being unable to secure a home health aide reveals the risks when people are forced to go it alone.
Build a Network of Support
The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee confirmed that older Americans are unlikely to have the level of support from family caregivers that they enjoyed in the past (2019). For many Solo Agers, the networks that will provide them with support in the future need to be crafted; we cannot assume they already exist.
For me personally, determining where to start building a network of support was a dilemma. My friend and support networks had dwindled, and I found myself living in an isolated world with few people to connect with on a daily basis. I knew that I had to make a change.
This type of situation—gradually increasing loneliness and isolation—are not a person’s fault and need not be a source of shame. Once a person recognizes that they are feeling isolated and lonely, they can be well on their way to build the close new bonds they deserve.
Why a Support Team Is Needed
Social support involves having a network of family, friends, and peers to turn to in times of need. A local support system is a key component of strong psychological health (American Psychological Association, 2022). Whether for immediate assistance during a personal crisis, or just to pass time with those who care, these relationships play a critical role in how a person functions day-to-day.
In older age, this kind of support network may shrink, and the need for someone to do regular safety checks, bring food if sick, offer a ride to an appointment, and run errands when needed are things Solo Agers should think about and plan for. Being strong and independent is a worthy goal, but circumstances can change quickly when physical strength and health weaken, even if it’s for just a few days.
How to Build a Support Team and Who Should Be on It
Close and caring relationships are undeniably linked to health and well-being at all ages. One study presented a thriving model of support through close relationships. Researchers discovered a foundation for identifying the specific interpersonal processes that underlie the effects of close relationships on thriving, defined in the study as coping successfully with life’s adversities and actively pursuing life opportunities for growth and development (Feeney & Collins, 2015).
The study outlined what an individual needs in order to thrive in older age:
- A focus on close relationships and face-to-face support approaches;
- A way to receive support and accept it as a practice of “thriving,” not just stress-buffering; and
- A way to understand that close relationships promote thriving and aging effectively.
Research confirms that older adults who have a solid and dependable community of connections for support and friendship in the later years, will experience improved health and mental functioning (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023). Those with meaningful relationships live 5 years longer on average than those who do not (Travers, 2020). Additionally, staying socially active and engaged in activities helps prevent depression (Alzheimer’s Association, 2023).
Single older adults may need encouragement to make provisions for the times when support is needed. A few reminders such as the following will put them on the right path:
- Make a list of close friends and peers to call or text—don’t forget the neighbors, they are an integral part of a support system. If there is no one to put on the list, get out and make new friends. Go to places where peers hang out. Work through the awkwardness of meeting new people.
- Develop a personal plan of action. Research different activities in the local area, highlight favorite things to do, and make a schedule to attend them.
- Put together a hospital grab bag for an emergency.
- Share the support list of people with a team of neighbors and peers. Form a “club,” if you will, and get others involved and excited about joining.
- Be patient and kind. Forming new relationships takes time, even years. But it will happen. When I first moved to a high-rise building, the residents didn’t talk to me straight away. But after two years, they began to open up, and at the end of years three and four, I began to receive invitations for coffee and dinner! It took a lot of effort and patience on my part, but today, my life is filled with many friends who live in the high-rise.
Assess Your Social and Support Well-being
Social connectedness (or the lack of it) can give you a place at the table or keep you out of the room altogether. Many years ago, I developed the following assessment to measure my own level of satisfaction for several domains, but this particular one addresses the social and support aspect. It uses a scale of 1–10, with 10 being the most satisfied.
Daily social interactions
Social network size
Evaluate Your Support Community
How easy is it to find someone to go on a trip for a day, have lunch out, or go to the movies? Is it difficult to find someone to say, “Yes, I’d love to!”
How easy is it to find someone to talk to about private worries and fears?
If sick, how easy is it to find someone to help you with daily chores?
Is there someone to turn to for advice about handling problems?
If going out of town for a few weeks, would it be difficult to find someone to look after the house or apartment (the plants, pets, garden, etc.?)
If stranded 10 miles from home, is there someone to call to come get you?
The assessment tool can be used to help evaluate current social and support networks. Because if one doesn’t know how to measure current status, how can one ever learn what, specifically, needs to change in order to resolve loneliness and low-level of supportiveness? Our goal as advocates for elders who might be lonely and isolated is to offer tools, resources, and unique ways to live that help them to make changes that enhance their lives.
Now that we’ve established the need for building support and connection, we should help clients understand what’s holding them back. If their concern is to avoid isolation and loneliness, teach them how to create a circle of friendships and close relationships and then, to be okay with asking for help.
May each of us embrace that attitude of openness and willingness to try new things and broaden our circle of friendships.
AmeriCorps Seniors: 800-942-2677; www.nationalservice.gov/programs/senior-corps
Eldercare Locator: 800-677-1116; firstname.lastname@example.org https://eldercare.acl.gov
Alzheimer's Association: 800-272-3900 866-403-3073 (TTY); email@example.com www.alz.org
LGBTQ individuals and families: find trained counselors, peer support, toolkits, fact sheets, and additional resources and information for individual support or about issues within the larger LGBTQ community.
National Council on Aging: 571-527-3900; www.ncoa.org/
Carol Marak is author of Solo and Smart: The Roadmap for a Supportive and Secure Future (Carol Marak, 2022), speaker, and mentor. She founded CarolMarak.com, and lives in Dallas, Texas.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/vectorfusionart
Ahn, M., Kwon, H. J., & Kang, J. (2017). Supporting aging-in-place well: Findings from a cluster analysis of the reasons for aging-in-place and perceptions of well-being. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 39(1) 3–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/0733464817748779
Alzheimer’s Association. (2023). Stay Mentally and Socially Active. www.alz.org/help-support/brain_health/stay_mentally_and_socially_active
American Psychological Association. (2022). Manage stress: strengthen your support network. www.apa.org/topics/stress/manage-social-support
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). How Does Social Connectedness Affect Health? www.cdc.gov/emotional-wellbeing/social-connectedness/affect-health.htm#:~:text=When%20people%20are%20socially%20connected,stress%2C%20anxiety%2C%20and%20depression
Davis, M. R. (2021). Despite pandemic, percentage of older adults who want to age in place stays steady. www.aarp.org/home-family/your-home/info-2021/home-and-community-preferences-survey.html#:~:text=What%20COVID%2D19%20hasn't,for%20more%20than%20a%20decade.
Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2015). New look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(2), 113–47. doi: 10.1177/1088868314544222
Harvard Health Publishing. (2017). Can relationships boost longevity and well-being? www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/can-relationships-boost-longevity-and-well-being
Hawkley & Cacioppo. (2013). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40, 2. doi: 10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8
Jackson, C., & Ballard, N. (2018, May 8). Over half of Americans report feeling like no one knows them well. Ipsos. www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/us-loneliness-index-report
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3), 353–75.
Murphy, V. (2023). Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation: U.S. surgeon general’s advisory on the healing effects of social connection and the community. www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020). Social isolation and loneliness in older adults. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/25663/chapter/1
Travers, M. (2020). How Many Additional Years of Life Will a Good Relationship Buy You? Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/traversmark/2020/11/24/how-many-additional-years-of-life-will-a-good-relationship-buy-you/?sh=5ff53e9b446a
U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. (2019). An Invisible Tsunami: ‘Aging Alone’ and Its Effect on Older Americans, Families, and Taxpayers. www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/republicans/2019/1/an-invisible-tsunami-lsquo-aging-alone-rsquo-and-its-impact-on-older-americans-families-and-taxpayers