December 15, 2015 by Jean
One of the trickier aspects of retirement for me is finding the right balance between social life (connection with others) and solitude (connection with self), both of which are essential to my well-being. In The Experience of Retirement (ILR Press, 2005), Robert S. Weiss tells us that social life is often a problem for retirees. Those whose social life has revolved around relationships with coworkers can find it particularly problematic, and those who live alone are especially at risk for social isolation. (See my review of Weiss’s book here.)
I don’t have the problem of friendships that were based primarily in the workplace; because I divided my time between Gettysburg (where my job was located) and Maine, I was away from co-workers whenever we had breaks from school and too busy for much socializing when school was in session. But I do live alone, and my love of solitude (see Retirement Preview: The Temptation to Be a Hermit), combined with a certain level of social insecurity about initiating invitations makes social isolation a real risk for me. I experienced some problems with social isolation during my first year of retirement. The long period when my house was under construction kept me from inviting people over, and last year’s harsh winter often made it difficult to get out (see Cabin Fever and Social Isolation).
From last winter’s experience, I learned that I need at least two meaningful social interactions each week to avoid social isolation in the winter, that I need to find a way to schedule some of these into my winter life (despite the vagaries of winter weather), and that I need to be more open to spontaneous opportunities and invitations from others.
My first line of defense against social isolation is to schedule regular social engagements. The monthly lunches with my W.O.W. retirees group are one of these. I’ve also reached out to schedule social engagements with my recently widowed next-door neighbor. Recently, I invited her to accompany me to the twice-a-month winter farmers’ market; she loved it, and we have left it that she will go with me whenever she can. More importantly, I have initiated a weekly dinner with her. She is a busy teacher who is too tired to cook when she gets home at the end of the day and whose late husband was the cook in the family. Since October, she has been coming to my house for dinner each Thursday evening. I like to cook, and it’s fun for me to try out some of my favorite dishes on someone else. We have both come to look forward to good food and good conversation each Thursday evening. And because we live next door to one another, she can get here even in rough weather.
I’ve also been pushing myself to accept invitations that come my way. In the past two weeks, I accepted an invitation to afternoon tea from a woman who was a student in my Senior College course and who lives just a few miles down the road from me. In the same week, I rearranged my schedule of chores and errands to accept an invitation from my friend Joyce to attend a Sunday afternoon concert in Portland (about 50 minutes away). This week, I will take her up on an invitation to a holiday craft fair.
Initiating invitations is still my biggest challenge, but I am working on it. Email is a boon to me in this regard. I generally find it difficult to make phone calls (worrying, for example, about whether I am calling at a bad time). The anxiety is greatest when I am telephoning with an invitation, and I find myself feeling unreasonably rejected if the other person cannot accept. I don’t worry about intruding on others with email, and I feel less sting of rejection when someone declines an email invitation. Last Saturday, I went off to Portland for some Christmas shopping followed by a delightful dinner out (arranged by email) with a former Gettysburg student who lives in Maine. This week, I sent out email messages to a group of local friends offering my house for our annual holiday dinner and gift exchange. I’ve also sent emails to some old friends from southern New England to see if I can connect with them when I’m in Massachusetts and Rhode Island visiting family over the holidays.
So busy has my social life been in recent weeks (3-4 engagements per week) that I’m taking a bit of a break this week, with only two engagements and time for solitude. This will recharge my batteries for a busy social schedule during the holidays. After that, I will settle into a quieter winter pattern. Our weather this year has been meek and mild, compared to the feet of snow that we’d already had last year at this time. But even if (when?) the winter weather turns severe, I feel that I have the foundations for a winter social life in place and am less likely to repeat last year’s experience of social isolation.