May 18, 2016   |   NO COMMENTS

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. 

Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.

–“Families”, by Jane Howard

Throughout our lives, we have been part of social groups. In our earliest years, those groups were defined by our families and their social connections—neighbors and friends. As we started school, our connections expanded to include classmates, sports and activities co-participants, college roommates. As we reached adulthood, our connections expanded further to include coworkers and perhaps parents of our own children’s friends. (I remember the first time I was introduced as “Penny’s mother”, not “Mimi”. It was disconcerting!)

Social ConnectionsWhat do these relationships have in common? These circles were, mostly, provided to us. We could pick and choose who we liked best among our classmates, our coworkers, or other parents but the groups were there.  Sometimes, proximity creates closeness that lasts a lifetime, but also may last only as the shared experience itself. As we approach retirement, some of those ready-made networks will begin to shift, or disappear entirely. For the first time, we have the challenge and the opportunity to create our own social worlds. We have the freedom to include our oldest childhood buddies or to strike out in new directions that match our post-working world interests.

Who are your closest friends? What part of your life do they come from? Are your interactions in “real time” or more virtual? As you begin retirement, or as you anticipate your retirement years, who do you want to share your newfound free time with? The good news? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, and the answers will continue to grow and evolve as you do. You may rediscover closeness with a spouse or partner, grow closer through caregiving to a parent, sibling or grandchildren. As much as we may not want to think about it, aging and social connections also inevitably involve loss.  How will that change you, and your relationships?

Relationships take work. As Mom always says…“to have a friend, be a friend.”  We can’t take for granted that our social networks will be there; it’s something we need to be aware of and be open to exploring. Even if someone is naturally an introvert, we still want to be part of the greater world.  As a college professor once said, “The first time you are in a new group of people, you may be shy and hide behind the potted palms. The second time, you recognize another person from the potted palms at the first event, so you have a friend. By the third event, they will put you on a committee.” If you are thinking ahead to retirement, take any opportunity to expand your networks.  According to William Frey, a demographer and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution:  “People in their 50s now are the most educated, most tech savvy generation in our country’s history.  They’ll want to stay engaged in their work and be physically social.”  Sound familiar?

Maintaining and nurturing social connections is more than “just for fun”.  Social support in retirement is associated with

  • Lower levels of depression, loneliness and anxiety
  • Higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness
  • Fewer health problems
  • Faster disease recovery
  • Longer life

Any major life event, such as retirement, has an important impact on our social networks. As we age, we encounter changes in health (our own or our friends and family). Some of us will unfortunately experience widowhood or the loss of close family members. Any of these events will alter the structure of our social network and the availability of social support. Maintaining friendships and building new relationships provides the backup to not just survive, but to thrive in difficult times. As retirees, we may even find a reduction in the sheer numbers of our social networks. This is a natural and inevitable shedding of less important relationships in order to focus on those most crucial and to develop new ones based on our changing lives. It’s ok to become more selective with social contacts, and choose to spend time with the most meaningful, emotionally rewarding interaction partners.

Whether you are anticipating retirement or you are already there, it’s important to maintain connections with others, form new relationships—including intergenerational friendships, and explore new forms of communications using tools such as social networking.

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