SCARBOROUGH — Norah Wood is only 4 years old, but she can teach us a great deal.

Recently, she and her mother were shopping for her birthday cupcakes in a Georgia grocery store. Norah saw an old man and said, “Hi, old person! It’s my birthday!”

Mr. Dan, an 82-year-old recent widower, lit up and asked her about her birthday. Their 10-minute chat ended with a hug, a selfie and a new friendship. No one knows why Norah spoke to Mr. Dan that day, but perhaps she saw the sadness in his eyes.

Mr. Dan credits the chance encounter and new friendship with helping him emerge from a six-month depression following his wife’s death. Norah and her family now visit Mr. Dan regularly and, to everyone’s delight, are now including him in their family’s holiday celebrations.

Norah is too young to know the official term affecting Mr. Dan. Like so many seniors among us, he was suffering from social isolation. Despite being surrounded by people and opportunities for engagement, he had withdrawn.

For Mr. Dan, it was the loss of his wife that led to loneliness and subsequent depression; for others, social isolation can be triggered by things like retirement or health changes. Nuclear families no longer stay close to their childhood homes. Increasingly, our family members are separated by time zones and oceans. Technology is helpful, but it’s not a long-term substitute for personal connection.

The journal Perspectives on Psychological Science reported in 2012 that one in five adults over age 50 – 8 million people – are affected by isolation. Maine is the oldest state by median age, meaning that our friends and neighbors are likely dealing with social isolation. The Journal of Health and Social Behavior has found that isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, a weakened immune system, dementia and increased use of emergency services and nursing homes.

If you’re suffering with social isolation, it’s important to take action and establish new routines to enhance your personal connectivity. If you’re not able to get out easily, ask for help from your family, friends or your church. Explore transportation services like ITN, ride sharing and local taxis to help you get to and from activities safely.

Revisit a hobby that perhaps you dropped because of past time constraints. Check out your local library and area museums for lectures and activities on topics you might be interested in. Consider increasing physical activity by joining a walking group or bowling group.

Organizations like the Southern Maine Agency on Aging can be a valued partner in addressing social isolation. We offer programs like tai chi and Living Well for Better Health. Tai chi offers safe and guided physical activity and will improve balance and decrease the risk of falling. Living Well for Better Health is for people with chronic pain or persistent conditions that adversely affect daily life.

Our Meals on Wheels program is well known for providing a regular nutritious meal and a friendly visit for older adults who are recovering from a recent surgery or are otherwise unable to prepare a meal. Our Phone Pals make daily check-in calls to meal recipients who are homebound.

Maine Senior Games offers a wide range of competitive athletic events for people age 45 and older. Our Vet to Vet program pairs veterans who meet at least twice a month for companionship built on the foundation of their military service. Our Money Minders program matches volunteers who meet regularly with older adults who need help with bill paying, mail sorting and checkbook balancing as well as basic budgeting.

And we can all take a lesson from young Norah and reach out to those among and around us who might need a friendly smile, conversation or support. Social isolation can be easy to fix and something we can all help to alleviate.

This holiday season and in the new year to come, let’s take a chance and reach out when we see an older adult who is struggling with loneliness. It feels good to connect with someone on the most basic human level – and we may well find a new friend.

— Special to the Press Herald