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“One of the things that I found out very quickly after I lost my wife was that I don’t like being alone,” says Harry Cohen, 93. “Sitting down at the breakfast table with nobody to talk to was just something I really disliked.”
Isolation and loneliness are common among older adults. Nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Additionally, a Consumer Affairs survey found the majority of adults are lonelier now than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only do social isolation and loneliness decrease quality of life, they are health risks. Too much solitude has been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, dementia, and early death. The health risks of loneliness are so severe that the U.S. surgeon general declared it the latest public health epidemic in 2023.
In 2022, Cohen moved to Wingate Senior Living’s independent living community in Needham, Mass. “The idea that I can always find people to be with at any time of day or evening, it’s really comforting and reassuring,” he says.
Whether it’s moving into a community for older adults or finding connection in their current neighborhood, older New England residents are finding ways to build and nurture important relationships.
At home in senior living
“Older adults are particularly vulnerable for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss,” says Jill Borrelli, vice president of behavioral health at Point32Health, the parent company of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan.
Senior living facilities and 55+ residences are one way to remedy this and foster new relationships as you age. Cohen lives with about 65 other adults in the independent living community at Wingate.
At these facilities, there are often activities built in that help foster and maintain new relationships. At Wingate, Cohen eats three meals a day with friends and attends regular exercise classes, including Zumba and ballroom dancing with his daughter, who lives nearby. He also enjoys the Boston area with Wingate friends, including playing tennis and attending performances of shows at the Boston Ballet and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“The overall happiness is really amazingly high,” Cohen says.
It takes a village
In 2015, The Village Common of Rhode Island formed its first village — made up of volunteers, mostly older adults, that help members of their community with household tasks like changing light bulbs and provide them with companionship on friendly phone calls and walks.
“It’s not just about changing the light bulb,” says Caroline Gangji, executive director of Village Common of Rhode Island. “It’s a chat. It’s checking in with you. Maybe having tea together. It’s that whole interaction that the member can then look forward to.”
The nonprofit’s mission is to change the experience of growing older by fostering local communities of mutual support and friendship. It helps the villages host picnics, outings to museums and concerts, and interest groups like book clubs, film clubs, walking groups, and more.
“What a village does is it stops isolation in its tracks, and it says you are important, you are part of our community,” Gangji says. Village Common of Rhode Island now has about 270 volunteers and six villages across the state. They are continuing to develop more.
Aging strong in Boston
The city of Boston’s Age Strong Commission works to enhance the lives of local adults 55 and older with meaningful programs, resources, and connections. In addition to providing food, housing, and transportation resources, the commission partners with Americorps to connect adults 55 and older to volunteer opportunities based on their interests. Volunteers might provide companionship to housebound adults, deliver food, or provide free health insurance information to clients.
“It’s a very rewarding experience,” says Maurice Wong, 72, who tutors English as a second language at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center through the program.
Boston is also home to more than 15 free senior centers where older adults can make connections, find resources, and stay mentally and physically active near home.
One such senior center is the Victoria B. Smith Center in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, where Emilia Brasil, 67, started visiting last year after losing her sister and retiring from her career.
“It was nice to be able to start to connect again,” Brasil says. She participates in a Japanese chorus at the center and group exercise classes that she says boost both her mental and physical health.
Richard Dornan, 77, walks 25 minutes from his condo to the center about three times a week for its yoga, qigong, and tai chi classes, as well as movies, lectures, and events like senior prom. “I’m happy coming here,” he says. “I wouldn’t be coming here so often if I wasn’t.” Recently, Dornan also went to the Boston Museum of Science with friends he made at the center.
Growing older and losing friends and family is a universal challenge. “It can make you want to isolate,” says Lauren Basler, executive director of the Victoria B. Smith Center. “I’m so inspired by the folks that come here that continue to want to make their lives the best that they can be.”
Boston and the state of Massachusetts aim to be an inclusive community for older adults of all walks of life. Massachusetts was recently named one of the best LGBTQ+ retirement destinations. The state has a history of inclusive legislation, including being the first state to legalize gay marriage, laws against discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and HIV status, as well as anti-discrimination laws in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
No matter who you are or how old you are, community is essential to health and happiness. “Feeling part of something bigger than yourself is an important part of well-being for people of all ages,” Point32Health’s Borrelli says. “Being part of a community helps older adults, and all of us, stay emotionally engaged and active.”
Tufts Health Plan, a Point32Health company, has Massachusetts-based Medicare Advantage plans to support those who are aging strong. To learn more about your Medicare options, call Tufts Medicare experts at 1-877-212-9768 or visit thpmp.org — and read on for more stories from Tufts Health Plan.
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