Combating loneliness: how to meet new friends

Many of us will feel lonely at some point in our lives. It’s that sadness that comes from being by yourself or feeling disconnected from the people around you. For some it’s fleeting, for others it becomes entrenched and damaging.

Several recent studies indicate loneliness is set to reach epidemic proportions by 2030. Experts say it’s as bad for us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Britain has even appointed a minister for loneliness. A report published by the Jo Cox Commission showed nine million people “always or often feel lonely” and 200,000 older people in the UK have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

Here at home, we have the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness (ACEL). Inspired by the work of the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness, the ACEL aims to address loneliness in Australia.

The good news is that feeling lonely is nothing to be ashamed of — the research is clear, millions of people are in the same boat.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need,” says one of the most prominent researchers in the field, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in the United States. “It is crucial to both well-being and survival.”

“Help, I’m lonely!"
A WYZA member recently asked if we have any suggestions on how to overcome loneliness.

“I'm a young 50s and love doing things but I'm lonely. I have lost close friends due to them moving away. I have lost the contact with people. I think I'm a loner — help me. What groups could I join to meet people?”

Here are some ideas for meeting new friends.

1. Volunteering
Volunteering is all about helping others, but it also benefits you personally — it offers the chance to make new friends, try a different career field, and explore your local area.

Organisations that help refugees, the homeless, people with disabilities, disadvantaged youths, or the elderly are numerous. Such organisations include Meals on Wheels, The Smith Family, The Salvation Army, Youth Off The Streets, Midnight Basketball Australia, Sacred Heart Mission, Black Dog Institute, Guide Dogs Australia, and Lifeline Australia.

The State Emergency Service (SES) in your state, and St John Ambulance Australia often put the call out for volunteers.

Wildlife rescue groups, such as WIRES in NSW, and animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA, always appreciate an extra pair of hands — check the parks and wildlife service in your state. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, for example, is seeking volunteers for historic and cultural heritage tours, and for their threatened species and bush regeneration programs.

If you enjoy working in customer service, try the local Oxfam Shop, Red Cross, or Save the Children op shop. Libraries need volunteers to help with stocktake, to maintain the toy library, and to deliver books to library customers. For music lovers, community radio stations are often run by volunteers — you might even have the chance to host your own show.

Major events also provide exciting opportunities for volunteers. Applications for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast are now closed, but keep an eye out for big events that are coming to your town or city. Film, music, and fashion festivals are often looking for volunteers.

For more information, contact your local council or visit Volunteering Australia.

2. Fitness classes
If you’re into group exercise, you have a potential social network right in front of you. Try golf, tennis, dragon boat racing, rowing, squash, salsa classes, ballroom dancing, badminton, ocean swimming, sailing, aqua aerobics, or yoga — or find a walking group via the Heart Foundation Walking network.

3. Hobbies
Do you like gardening, films, model airplane flying, bird watching, photography, chess, creative writing, clay target shooting, knitting, bridge, quilting, cooking, or reading? Look in your local area for groups, clubs, or classes that you could join.

Car fanatics could join a club, such as classic car club. For motorcyclists, the Ulysses Club is a social group for people aged over 40 years. Its motto is “grow old disgracefully”.

For the community or politically minded, you could attend local council meetings. And don’t forget your local Men’s Shed, which provides a space to work on practical projects while enjoying some good old-fashioned mateship.

4. Faith-based groups
Churches and religious organisations tend to host a lot of social gatherings outside of their regular services, offering golden opportunities to meet people with similar beliefs.

5. Virtual spaces
Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks can be used as a way to connect with old friends, make new ones, and keep up with what’s happening in your community.

If you want to learn more about computers or social media, ask at your local library or visit a local computer club. The Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association lists over 130 clubs for older Australians — one might be in your area.

6. Meetups
Meetup.com is a nifty site that offers users the chance to join groups, known as Meetups, based on their location and interests. Examples of groups you can join include “Monopoly Players”, “More Bakeries Than Cycling Touring Club”, “Women’s Social Club”, and “French Movie Group”. If you can’t find a group that interests you, create your own!

7. Online dating
The major online dating sites are RSVP, eHarmony, Match, Oasis Active, Plenty of Fish (POF), Zoosk, and Tinder.

A good place to start might be with eHarmony, as it caters for a large number of older users. Billed as “Australia’s most trusted online dating site”, it offers specific dating advice for seniors. Of course, there are scams out there, so keep your wits about you.

8. Lions and Rotary Clubs
Lions and Rotary do a lot of good in their local communities and further afield. Lions’ motto is “where there’s a need, there’s a Lion”. Rotary is made up of members “who strive to make the world a better place”.

9. Returning to work
Working doesn’t have to be about the money. If you are in need of an outlet for mingling, going back to work could be the answer. Perhaps you could ask your former workplace about casual work, or approach your local Bunnings Warehouse — the hardware chain encourages older workers back in the workforce.

Former teachers might register for substitute teaching, and pet lovers could advertise pet sitting or walking services. If you love weddings, why not become a marriage celebrant?

Adore children? Ask parents you know if they need babysitting or someone to pick their kids up after school. Crafty? How about a market stall? Too many veggies in the garden? Try selling them at a farmer’s markets. A spare bungalow, caravan, or room could be decorated and listed on AirBNB.

Other ideas include freelance writing, consulting, or selling your photos on a microstock site such as Getty Images.

10. Pets
They are known as man’s best friend but having a dog can help you socialise more with people. A study by the University of Western Australia found “pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighbourhood whom they didn’t know previously, compared with non-pet owners”.

Published in PLOS ONE, The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support concluded that dog owners were more likely to get to know people in their community than owners of other pets, such as cats or birds.

11. Reconnecting with old friends
Make a list of people that you remember fondly and reach out to them by phone, email, or Facebook. If they live nearby, invite them out for coffee, and if they are interstate or overseas, send a short email — who knows, one day you might take a trip and meet up with them.

Don’t assume old friends have forgotten about you just because they haven’t been in touch — they may have been juggling work and parenting in their 30s and 40s, making it hard to stay in touch. Most likely, they will be pleased to hear from you.

What have you done to combat feeling lonely? Share you experiences and ideas below.

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