I had breakfast recently with two friends in their 70’s. Both have enjoyed very successful professional lives, but are now struggling with how to “give back” in later life. They know what they are good at and would like to share those skills with others, but they are struggling with how to find the right group that shares both their professional interests and feels like a good fit socially. Being on a the board of an organization is all well and good, but they are after something that is much more personal and community-based.
As I listened to them speak, it occurred to me that what they’re really talking about is how to cultivate a sense of “belonging,” something that is so naturally achieved through colleagues, religious affiliations, neighborhoods and our kids in earlier phases of adulthood. As we age however, and parents become ill or die, friends move on and our careers wind down, belonging becomes more central to our lives – and more elusive.
Here are five ways to cultivate a sense of belonging as we age:
a. Join a Club – This is obviously the easiest and most immediate way to foster a sense of belonging, by joining a like-minded group of people who share your core interests. While some people think that everything you do in retirement has to have “meaning” and “purpose! (Capital M! Capital P!), there’s a lot to be said for just getting out there and having some old-fashioned fun. Plus, picking up a hobby in mid-life is good for brain development. Not finding what you want? Start your own club. I once solicited ideas for different “grown up” club ideas on Linked In and was amazed with what came back: an “admin” club where you sit with friends to force yourself through the mound of paperwork on your desk, a “fix-it” collective to repair broken objects and – wait for it! – a “procrastinators club” where you actually put some money down to inspire yourself – and others – to tackle a long-delayed life project.
b. Go Online – If you’re not finding something that sparks a sense of belonging locally, go online. Not all boomers are comfortable on the internet, but seniors who use the internet report higher levels of life satisfaction than seniors who do not. I’ve personally been delighted to discover the treasure trove of websites devoted to establishing a sense of community and identity for those of us in the “second half of life,” which range from more journalistic sites like Next Avenue that provide news and information relevant to America’s booming aging population, to health and wellness sites aimed at more niche audiences, such as Sixty and Me (women) or OlderBeast (men).
c. Volunteer – If I sounded above like I dismiss the value of volunteer work as we age, I don’t. We know that volunteering as you age can be good for both your physical and your mental health. The two friends I had breakfast with were particularly keen to find places where they could utilize the skills they’d amassed over a lifetime of work and make those useful for other people. Fortunately, they are tapping into a zeitgeist as organizations like Encore.org and Re-Serve are all about fostering this sort of inter-generational learning.
d. Do A Gap Year – Until recently, the concept of a “gap year” was almost entirely confined to the U.K. It’s an (optional) year right after high school and before college when 18 year-olds go out and explore – literally, by travelling, or more figuratively, by working/volunteering/ or simply puzzling through what the next phase of adulthood might offer. I’m quite drawn to the idea of gap years for grown ups as a time to do volunteer work, learn a new skill, or immerse oneself in a foreign culture. For those struggling with how to find belonging, this outside-the-box strategy might just do the trick.
e. Go To A Conference – Finally, if all else fails, belonging might come about through simple, old-fashioned networking. There are a variety of conferences springing up aimed specifically at the aging set, whether those are about fostering creativity or understanding the business side of the “longevity economy.” Pick your passion and register now!
What works for you?
Image: The Romanian Mob by John Rawlinson via Flickr