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As I was completing my college degree, my mentor was preparing for retirement. Coincidentally, we were both returning to Maine to turn to these new chapters in our lives. While I sought to identify myself through a career, she was beginning to re-identify herself without one.

A professional sociologist by training, my mentor, Jean Potuchek, establishes understanding of her situations through experience and perspective. And, as any good researcher would, she chronicles her wisdom and realities in a blog called “Stepping into the Future.”

A woman with no partner, children, or family nearby, she established a “Solo Seniors” group based in the Lewiston-Auburn area a little more than a year ago, knowing that adjusting to this new phase while aging alone would be most successful through the power of collective action.

Research has shown that later life is the happiest time of life for most people. It’s a paradox countered not only by society telling us that our 20s are the best time of life, but also by many who feel overwhelmed that they must age on their own simply because they live alone. After all, some research also tells us that living alone is a measure of social isolation and, further, that social isolation is a predictor of negative health outcomes and earlier death.

Although social isolation has been identified as a risk to developing a variety of physical and mental conditions, living alone doesn’t necessarily correlate to social isolation.

That’s because there’s an antidote called social engagement. For many older singletons, especially for those who are home bound, social media can play a powerful role in offering a source of participation and belongingness. There are countless “Elder Orphan” groups on Facebook, for example, that provide a space for virtual discussion and interaction.

Though certainly a good start, this virtual model isn’t always a guaranteed countermeasure. What Jean and her “Solo Seniors” group concluded was that for social engagement to be an effective antidote to social isolation, it must include face-to-face interaction with people that you can count on for support – both logistical and emotional.

And for some – whether it’s those who have lived alone for years and have developed a habit of independence that makes it difficult to ask for help or those who are newly alone and may not have learned yet how to rely on non-family – the decision to seek direct interaction may make the difference in determining whether living alone is a reliable or a poor measure of social isolation.

For those who are living alone, there is a special responsibility to plan ahead. But that burden can be distributed across a support system if such a network exists. If living alone doesn’t need to correlate with social isolation, it also certainly doesn’t need to require aging in isolation.

When Jean began her “Solo Seniors” group, the most difficult part wasn’t in figuring out what to focus on – there were plenty of topics to discuss, often whatever was currently on participants’ minds. The trickiest issue was the coordination of a meeting time and location that worked best for most.

Age Friendly South Portland, an AARP-certified age-friendly community, is committed to creating a city that is supportive of those aging alone. The committee will be hosting the first of its ongoing quarterly “Solo Seniors” groups on April 16 from 5 to 7 p.m. at South Portland Public Library (482 Broadway).

Beginning with a presentation featuring speakers from local organizations, attendees will learn about a wide range of resources available in our community before separating into small groups for facilitated conversations focused on what it means to age alone and how best to navigate supports and systems. Light refreshments will be provided.

To attend this event, please RSVP by April 1 to the South Portland Public Library by calling 207-767-7660, ext. 5 or emailing [email protected] To be eligible for participation, attendees must be 55 years of age or older and living alone.

In the meantime, I invite you to visit Jean’s blog, “Stepping into the Future,” at  https://stepintofuture.wordpress.com/.

Chad MacLeod is co-chairman of South Portland’s Age Friendly Committee.

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