March 21, 2013 by Jean
Many new retirees discover just how much of their social life has been built around workplace relationships, and they also discover that those relationships can be difficult to maintain after retirement. Sometimes this can lead to the problem of social isolation.
In his book on The Experience of Retirement (ILR Press, 2005), sociologist Robert Weiss notes that retirees who live alone are at particular risk of social isolation. That would be me; I have lived alone for most of my adult life. In addition, I don’t have children, which means that I don’t have any “built in” relationships to provide regular outlets for social interaction. Instead, I depend for emotional and social support on less “automatic” relationships with friends. These relationships can be very rich, but they require more intentional effort to maintain.
In my own case, an extra complication is that I have always had high needs for solitude. As a child growing up in a busy, crowded household, I sought opportunities to spend time alone, usually outdoors. In adulthood, this translated into a love of hiking, camping, and traveling alone. When I first found myself living alone in my early twenties (after never even having had a room of my own!), I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. I can feel perfectly happy going days at a time without contact with anyone else. The positive side of this is that a level of interaction that might feel to some like social isolation makes me feel happy. The problem is that my treasured solitude can become a kind of inertia; the longer I go without contact with others, the more difficult I find it to initiate that contact. It would be all too easy for me to become a hermit, and the research indicates that would not be a healthy choice.
I am aware that I need to plan for social interaction as I transition into retirement. Happily, I will be moving back to a community where I have a network of close friends. And although most of these friendships are with people that I once worked with, they have survived decades of not being based in the workplace. In addition, I benefit from the fact that women seem to make new friends more easily in late adulthood than do men. Nevertheless, as I think about how I will spend my time in retirement, I know that I need to pay attention to the the danger of social isolation. I can’t just leave this to take care of itself; it will be important for me to include a place in my life for regularly scheduled activities that provide opportunities for social interaction and for developing friendships.