Looking for a strong supportive community as you age? Here are some tips for creating one that will meet your needs.
We humans are basically social animals and so it’s no mystery that we need and want to be around others who will support us throughout our lives, especially in our later years. Scientific evidence reveals that older adults who live in supportive communities live longer, healthier, and richer lives.
At the same time, we also value our independence and self-sufficiency. According to AARP, 77% of people age 50 and older want to remain in their own homes or apartments, which is fine as long as we can continue to meet our economic, health, and social needs. Among the most important challenges are retiring from or losing employment, decreasing sight, hearing, mental capacity, and/or mobility, and losing family members and friends to relocation or death.
Most likely you feel this need to maintain your autonomy, too. If so, it’s important to determine how you’ll enlist the help of others to see you through unexpected situations such as an illness or injury. Who are some of the people you can turn to, especially if your family isn’t nearby or otherwise an option? What specific things could they do for you? How can you start this planning process?
Fortunately, two experts have answers to these questions.
Who’s in a Community?
“Every person has a need for community, for positive interactions with other people,” says Wendl Kornfeld, founder of the Community as Family education model. “As a society, we should recognize that and do our best to make it possible for everyone.”
That’s a good way to describe Kornfeld’s mission. She helps adults without the support of close family anticipate the changes of later life, identify critical resources, and create a personal team from among friends, neighbors, colleagues, and professionals. She also consults with organizations to help them set up Community as Family discussion groups.
“Community goes well beyond just your family members,” she says. “It includes your friends, neighbors, people you work with. Your family members might be spread out all over the country, and you might be in touch only sporadically, mostly for special occasions. Your community tends be made up of the people in your daily life whom you see and interact with often.”
The pandemic has added the additional challenge of social isolation, causing many older adults to rely heavily on face-to-face contact over the Internet using apps such as Zoom and Facetime. However, these choices have their limitations when it comes to the need for physical help with shopping, driving, cleaning, and other errands.
While it’s possible for someone to socialize with and get emotional support from people online, author, professional speaker, and expert on solo aging Sara Zeff Geber, PhD, places an additional value on physical proximity: “Having a virtual community is a good thing, but it doesn’t substitute for nearby, flesh-and-blood people whom you care about and who care about you.”
Some Helpful Strategies
Kornfeld encourages each person to form an “A-Team” from among neighbors and friends who will commit to performing certain specific tasks for one another as the need arises.
To increase your chances of being around a supportive group of people, Geber suggests that people “move to a place where relationships come naturally—an active adult community, a continuing-care retirement community, a cohousing community, a mobile home park. Or rent out a room or rooms in your house, à la The Golden Girls.”
Another particularly helpful solution is to contact the Village to Village Network in order to locate and join a community-based, nonprofit village in your geographic area. Villages are composed of members and volunteers who help meet one another’s needs.
As you create your own community, try to make it a diverse one. “Having a community of various generations and different cultural backgrounds makes for a very interesting lifestyle,” says Kornfeld. “And despite our differences, we still find so many basic things we have in common, just as human beings.”
Give and Not Give Up
With a little extra effort, you can create the community you want and need. Both Kornfeld and Geber say it’s within your reach. Begin with what you can do for others.
“Give, give, give,” says Geber. “Look around for what you might do to help others. Do some caregiving, cook a meal for someone, offer a ride, make yourself useful. And don’t expect repayment. You are just paying it forward. You don’t know when or how it will come back to you.”
“Leaving your comfort zone to seek out new places and activities isn’t easy,” says Kornfeld. “It takes patience and tenacity to develop mutually beneficial relationships. It may take longer than you’d hoped. Not all outreach is welcomed or reciprocated, but keep at it, and don’t give up.”
Jeanette Leardi is a Portland-based social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator who has a passion for older adult empowerment. She gives popular presentations and workshops in journaling, memoir writing, ethical will creation, brain fitness, creativity, ageism, intergenerational communication, and caregiver support to people of all ages. Learn more about her work at jeanetteleardi.com.
More of Our Experts’ Tips
Volunteer for causes in which you have strong feelings. You’ll meet others who share your passion and interests.
Be brave. Put yourself out there—don’t wait for community to find you.
Join a house of worship. Even if you’re not religious, chances are there will be ways other than attending services for you to meet people and get involved.
Become more technologically adept by taking online courses such as those offered by GetSetUp and Senior Planet.
Take classes and courses that meet regularly so you keep seeing the same people who share your interest in the subject. After you establish rapport, suggest meeting outside the class for coffee, a walk, etc.
Look into MeetUp. There are hundreds of different interest groups to join, but if you don’t see one with your interest, start your own group.
Check out the local library. Most of them offer a lot more than just books now.
Get on the mailing list for blogs you enjoy reading. Comment often and contribute to the conversation. You’ll meet others online who resonate with your values or personality.
To learn more about Kornfeld’s work, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Talk to people. Be curious about what people are interested in, what they do to fill their time, what gives their lives meaning and purpose, and what they struggle with.
Get involved in causes, organizations, groups that have a mission, which can often spawn excellent friendships.
Be an organizer. Get the ball rolling, whether it’s an afternoon with friends at a nearby movie house, a hike, a weekend at a spa or campground. Don’t wait for others to do the heavy lifting. (It’s not all that heavy when you get used to it!)
Plan early. Don’t wait to the last minute to make plans. The most community-minded people think ahead and don’t let last-minute snafus stress them out.
Assess the community you already have. Will it be viable in the future? Are your neighbors helpful to one another or just come out for a party? Do your church/synagogue/mosque/ashram members genuinely express their caring for one another? Do they band together in time of need and help one another? If not, either start the ball rolling on this in your current community, or change communities.
Be willing to relocate to find genuine community, one with staying power.
To learn more about Geber’s work, visit https://sarazeffgeber.com/.