Bacoa programs help seniors find connections

"I'm 96," said Lucille (Lu) Watson, "and I don't feel old at all."

Despite being one of millions of older adults living alone in America, Lu has found ways to stay active. She attends programs like "Lunch & Bingo," trips to the theater, and a weekly knitting club - all hosted by a local nonprofit organization, Bacoa (Barrington Area Council on Aging).

For Lu, activity programs provide more than a reason to get out of the house; they're where she's developed close bonds of friendship and found her community.

"I've met a lot of nice ladies through that group. I have such a nice time," said Lu.

As we age, it can feel important to prioritize responsibilities that feel bigger than friendship; we become caregivers and employees, and we lose family and friends to moves, arguments and deaths.

But research identifies friendship as a positive influence on our mental and physical health. Maintaining friendships has also been shown to promote healthy behaviors like good eating habits while boosting self-esteem and reducing stress.

While many of us know friendship is good for us, we don't always make the effort to seek out connection. Rising in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation and loneliness are growing problems in the United States, where, according to a recent Harvard study, more than one-in-three people report feeling lonely. The problem is especially significant for America's rapidly expanding older adult population, which is expected to double by 2050.

Loneliness in older adults is linked to an increased risk of depression, heart disease and dementia; one study found it's negative health effects equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

"If we don't find ways to help older adults stay socially engaged, the poor health effects are going to produce a major strain on our health care system," said Terri Channer, Bacoa's executive director.

There are several reasons older adults may experience loneliness, including loss of a spouse, retirement and health concerns that limit their ability to engage in social activities.

Volunteering, finding a new hobby, or attending community events (in person and virtual) are a few ways we all can find social interaction and combat loneliness as we age.

"I'm a friendship matchmaker," said Bacoa's Active Aging Program Manager Janine O'Leary. "Aging doesn't mean you need to be lonely. It's about finding outlets to keep you connected and engaged."

Though staying active is key to preventing loneliness, it's also important to know when to seek professional help. Approximately 15% of older adults experience depression, and people over 65 have the highest suicide rate of any age group. Older adults are less likely to report feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and their depression symptoms like fatigue, loss of appetite and poor sleeping patterns may be masked by other physical ailments.

Social connection not only helps prevent loneliness, but provides a support network for those who may otherwise be unlikely to report their symptoms.

For people like Lu, this support comes from the friends she made at Bacoa programs.

"They have helped me with so many things. I don't know what I would've done otherwise," Lu said.

Approaching her 97th birthday, Lu shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to attend community programs, and recently took a group trip from Barrington to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to watch a theater performance of "White Christmas."

"I would encourage people to get out there and try something new," said O'Leary. "You may be nervous or scared, but I promise you it's going to be worth it. The relationships people make expand beyond my programs: they're a support system we all need."

Seniors enjoyed a trip to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, for a theater performance of "White Christmas," just one of the many activities the Bacoa offered last year to keep seniors connected. Courtesy of Bacoa
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