The Value of Maintaining Social Connections Throughout Retirement

As an educator, you’re accustomed to a social environment. Schools and classrooms are active, high- energy places and your passion for helping and collaborating with others extends to colleagues, friends and broad social networks. After you retire, it may take some effort to replace those social ties, and research suggests doing so is important for your long-term health and happiness.

Fast Facts

  • One recent study from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that highly social seniors had a 70 percent lower rate of cognitive decline compared to those who were less social.
  • Researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham found that using the Internet was associated with a 30 percent decrease in depressive symptoms.
  • According to research by the Pew Research Center, people over age 65 are the fastest growing age group on social media, while 60 percent of individuals age 50-64 are using social networks to communicate.
  • Over 70 percent of pre-retirees age 50 and older want to keep working after they retire, according to a March 2014 Merrill Lynch survey on work in retirement.

Humans are social animals by nature. We learn about the world through our social connections with other people as we grow and mature. These social networks play a big role in shaping our personal and professional lives.

In his book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” physician and social scientist Nicholas Christakis says that through our social networks we are influenced by, and we are able to influence people up to three degrees removed from us. A number of traits—from happiness to obesity—can spread from person to person within your network, affecting your life in both direct and indirect ways. Christakis also delivered a fascinating TED talk on the subject.

When people retire, their social networks—particularly those tied to their career—may shrink. This can affect happiness along with physical and mental health. Retirees need to be proactive in maintaining existing connections and building new ones.

Here are a few ways you can stay connected and intellectually challenged throughout retirement:

  • Be social. Nurture personal relationships of varying degrees of closeness with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and those on the periphery of your daily life, like the checker at the grocery store.
  • Go online. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and others are a great way to keep in touch with people who are far away. Pictures and videos of events, both significant and mundane, posted on these social media sites are the next best thing to being there and help make you feel a part of the lives of others.
  • Engage your thumbs. It’s unusual to run into someone who doesn’t have a smartphone today, which means typing emails and texts on your phone can keep you connected to distant friends when a longer communications commitment isn’t feasible. Of course, you can always place a call when you want to get more personal and hear the sound of a friend’s voice.
  • Get a job. Working at something you’re passionate about—even if it’s not in the education field— can keep you mentally sharp and provide a sense of accomplishment. Plus, a workplace environment is a built-in social network.
  • Volunteer. Volunteering is a naturally social activity. Recent studies have confirmed that people who volunteer actually feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. They report lower stress levels and develop a stronger sense of purpose and quality of life.
  • Join a club. If you can imagine it, there’s probably a local club that’s devoted to it. Book clubs, garden clubs or groups focused on anything from hiking to painting to mediation can be a rewarding way to meet interesting people. Meetup.com lets you create or join groups of like-minded neighbors focused on literally hundreds of different interests. There are Teachers Meetups in 244 cities across the country. It’s great way to stay connected to others in your profession.

The Bottom Line
It’s not unusual for smart and previously engaged people to become socially and intellectually withdrawn after they retire and drift away from their supportive workforce-based network. It doesn’t have to happen to you as you get older. If you’re proactive in nurturing and expanding social connections and communications networks, you will experience more joy and satisfaction in life. And you might even stay physically and mentally healthier for a much longer time.