How Social Media Could Make Us Lonelier Seniors – and What You Can Do

Man with White Dog

As 2015 draws to a close and I look forward to 2016, I’m planning to make some fairly significant changes in my life.

Many of these changes aren’t typical “new year’s resolution” changes, like resolving to lose 20 pounds or become better organized. They are more oriented towards shifting various aspects of my life to better align with how I envision my renaissance, or my ultimate retirement lifestyle.

You probably have, or will, go through similar lifestyle adjustments at some point, either as an intentional effort or as a response to changing circumstances or priorities.

Creating a satisfying retirement lifestyle that fulfills your needs and desires involves not just the activities you add into your life, it also involves letting go of things that no longer serve you well.

In my last article, I wrote about letting go of responsibilities and obligations that no longer benefit you. Next week, I will write about letting go of possessions you no longer need. In this article, I am going to write about letting go of some people, while enriching your connection with others.

Letting go of people?

That may sound cold-hearted and rash, but I’m not talking about severing ties and cutting off communication entirely. (Although in the case of a few toxic people, that might be a good idea.) I’m talking about adjusting your focus and priorities. Allow me to explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people in my life and the nature of my relationships with them.  I have been considering how well my needs for socialization are being met. After all, one of the pillars of a happy retirement is socialization.

Overall, I’m doing pretty well. I belong to several musical organizations, and I am still in touch with several of my closest friends from my work years.

Still, something seems lacking. My circle of friends and acquaintances seems very broad, but not as deep as I would like. For all the people I know, I seem to have fewer close friends now than I have had at most other times during my life.

It appears that I am not alone. Recent studies at Duke University, the University of Arizona and Cornell indicate that the number of close friends people say they have has declined rapidly in the last two to three decades.

I think this trend has accelerated since the advent of social media applications such as Facebook.  You and I can claim that we have some level of connection with more people than ever before, yet this can obscure the fact that we don’t have as much quality contact with the people in our lives we genuinely care about. It’s a superficial level of connection.

Studies show that extensive use of Facebook can cause depression. A frequently offered explanation is that people tend to share the good things that are happening in their lives, such as vacation pictures, nice dinners, and selfies with friends, but not share their problems or times when they are going about the mundane activities of their day-to-day lives. This creates the illusion that other people’s lives are more exciting than yours.

But I think there’s a deeper reason for this Facebook-induced depression. I contend that this selective view of others’ lives leaves you feeling excluded. You see snapshots of others’ lives, but you haven’t been included in them. You learn what they have been doing, but you haven’t had real personal interaction with them. It is the social equivalent of empty calories. It reduces you to being a spectator in life when you crave participation.

Our world is becoming one in which millions of people sit at home alone, interacting with the rest of the world through their computers and smartphones.

In 2016, I am going to change that.

I’m going to let go of the notion that I can maintain a meaningful connection with dozens or even hundreds of Facebook “friends.”

I’m going to let go of using Facebook as one of my primary means of connecting and keeping up with people.

Instead, Jeff and I are going to identify a manageable number of real friends whom we truly care about and whom we most value having in our lives – probably between 12 and 20 people. We are going to make a concerted effort throughout the year to get together with them individually, as couples, or in small groups for higher-quality interactive experiences, such as dinners, games, and other shared activities.

I’m going to un-follow (not un-friend) most of the other people on Facebook who are merely acquaintances. I could close my Facebook account altogether, but the reality is that this is the primary medium through which many people communicate these days.

Facebook is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it is used in moderation (like many other things in life). But I’m going to stop relying on it to be one of my primary means of seeking connection. That should free up a lot of time, too.

Will social media create a generation of lonelier seniors?

I think a lot about how today’s social media environment will change the lives of seniors in the years to come.  Those of us who are now in our 40s and 50s are the first generation for which personal computers and the internet have played a significant part in our lives, including how we interact.

According to a recent study by the University of California at San Francisco, 43% of all seniors report feeling lonely on a regular basis, and 18% of seniors age 60 and over live alone. Today, it’s more common than ever for families to be geographically dispersed.

It’s true that social media (as well as email, Skype, and electronic communication in all forms) can make it easier for isolated seniors to stay in touch with loved ones. Grandparents can more easily see photos of their grandchildren and keep up with what’s going on in their lives. Clearly, this is a better alternative than occasional or rare contact via visits or letters (which few people write anymore), or no contact at all.

Still, it’s superficial contact. Reliance upon social media shouldn’t replace actual human interaction. I wonder whether nursing homes and assisted living homes in twenty years will be filled with old people all sitting in their rooms in front of computers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The large percentage of lonely seniors is saddening, but it shouldn’t have to be this way. While I’m sure there are some cases in which seniors have found themselves in lonely environments for reasons beyond their control, I suspect that many have ended up in this scenario through their own inaction or lack of awareness.

Many people were probably not cognizant of nor prepared for the change in their socialization needs that came about when they left work and their work friendships quickly faded.

Similarly, I wonder whether seniors in ten or twenty years will struggle with socialization as a result of over-reliance on social media.

2015-12-24 John Lennon

Take control of your future happiness!

It is ultimately your responsibility to seek out and cultivate a circle of friends who will enrich your life and provide mutual care and companionship. It’s not difficult to do, but it doesn’t happen automatically. It requires action on your part.

It’s up to you to find the right balance between electronic communication and real-life interaction.

This becomes particularly important in your later years, because you will become more dependent upon others for assistance.

I have no intention of growing old and being lonely. Jeff and I do not have any family members who live close by nor do we have any children, so it is up to us to create and nurture a family of choice.

Inevitably, some of our friends will move away. In the future, we will be faced with seeing some of our friends pass away before we do.

Life changes continually, so taking ownership of our socialization needs is an ongoing responsibility.

How do you feel about the state of your social life, especially with regard to social media?

Are you concerned with being lonely later in life?

Are you happy with the number of good friends you have and the quality of those relationships?

Please scroll down to share your thoughts in the comments.


© 2015 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: H. Koppdelaney. Some rights reserved.

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