Skip to main content


Putting Age -friendly Principles into Practice - 4 Social Particpation Part 1


Being alone doesn't have to mean being lonely, but if you are, there are many ways to overcome it

According the Centre for Disease Control  loneliness - as distinct from wanting to be alone, is bad for your health, even more than smoking, alcohol or obesity. It is linked to a range of diseases including heart disease and cancer and is also bad for your mental health because it can add to the risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. It also increases the risk of dementia by 50%. Some groups, particularly immigrants and members of the LGTB community, are more affected than others.


Creating Social Connections

Brussels is good example of a city which has social participation as a primary goal. It seeks to improve the quality of life of its older people by offering a range of activities. It  delivers these through a network of seven social meeting places it has established throughout the city.

These are also information hubs and a place where people of different generations can come together. Typical activities include;- computer and language courses, sporting activities, a film club, a reading group and a group which meets for meals. They also organise excursions. Volunteers with First Aid training help to run them. A discount card gives low -cost access to a wide range of cultural, educational and sporting activities in the wider community. An interactive website allows all generations to share information and skills.

The Senior Service also runs an after -school club within a sports club and has seniors helping children with school activities. So far the learning activities have proven most popular. 

Many communities have Senior Citizens centres like this. We have one in our city centre which is run by the council. It has meeting rooms for all kinds of activities including dance, handcrafts, yoga, learning ukelele and community singing and you can drop in anytime for a tea or coffee. On some days there are bushwalks or other excursions. On Thursdays a health nurse checks blood pressure, hearing and so on and answers any questions seniors might have about their health. On Fridays there is a low cost three course meal with starched napkins and a glass of wine.  It is also an excellent source of information. Once a year they hold Seniors week which gives access to a range of places, activities and even health services such as sport and fitness clubs and physio, which you might not normally use. One year I even had a flying lesson under this program. Our state government issues a senior's card which gives inexpensive access to museums, public transport, historic buildings and so on and discounts in various shops and cafes. 

There are also other clubs which are mainly for seniors. See this selection from Adelaide, South Australia for example.

In the USA the American Association of Retired persons AARP  has 38 million members across all states and charges a small membership fee. It’s virtual community centre includes lots of classes from fitness to mindfulness and nutrition. there's a huge list of seniors activities here. See more on the CDC pages here.

EU The European Seniors Union covers 27 states, and 1,269,000 members. This might be a good place to start. Click on the country you are interested in and you will find organisations which operate there.

In  the UK  Age UK has a long list. 


Senior Meetup

Though mostly US -based Senior Meetup helps seniors to meet in person for group activities and social events. Its about connecting seniors with the same interests and who live in the same neighbourhood or city. Some of these groups look quite interesting. Art, Drama and Photography seem popular and Portugal for example, has a senior graffiti program. Ireland  has an annual seniors' Performing Arts Festival. There are also various dating sites. If there isn’t a group for your particular interest or none in your area, you may be able to get help to start one. Click for more.

Book Clubs and film societies are also an excellent way to engage with others. Ask your library about the former. There's an informal group of seniors here which meets for Scrabble in the park and another which plays bocce down at the beach. Then there are all the formal sporting clubs - golf, lawn bowls and tennis. Don't forget the various types of neighbourhood groups mentioned earlier. Ours is great. People swap bulbs and excess fruit, give away books and kid's clothes or ask if anyone knows a good plasterer. There are also groups like Neighbourhood Watch and Bushcare which would most certainly welcome seniors. 

If you need more inspiration click here. This article mentions the importance of play for keeping your brain ticking over and improving your physical and mental wellbeing and for forming new relationships.

For the Housebound 

Don't worry if you can't get out and about. Many groups such as Age UK, the Red Cross in Australia and various churches and charities have outreach programs where they will telephone or visit the elderly and help take them shopping, to appointments or outings. In the USA the AARP  has outreach services and loads of tips on living well even if you have a disability such as hearing loss or impaired vision. For lots of virtual activities which you can join without leaving home click here.

Connection through Learning

Hong Kong has also used education as a way to bring older people together. Faced with a number of challenges including limited space and an older population expected to reach 30% of the total by 2034, Hong Kong was particularly concerned about the social isolation of retired older men living in its many high rise apartments. They were not so much excluded as invisible and 31% of them lived in poverty.

In 2008 its Council of Social Services established an Age – Friendly Steering Committee which set up  age -friendly platforms in 18 districts and a volunteer sector. It also built more age friendly housing. Its  Elder Academy however, is one of its biggest success stories. It uses existing buildings at schools and universities and is especially for those who missed out on education previously. By using students at schools and universities, there is opportunity for inter -generational contact and building greater understanding between them, though changing attitudes towards the elderly remains a major problem.

Living and Learning Centres, Neighbourhood Houses

Living and Learning Centres or Neighbourhood Houses have been a key feature of many communities throughout Australia, providing information and an opportunity for all ages to drop in for a cuppa and a chat and to take part in creative, physical or social activities. A typical example follows.

Although not formally a member of the Age – Friendly Cities Movement, the Living and Learning Centre in Nillumbik Shire in Victoria (AU) offers a wide range of activities such as creating an urban food garden or a habitat garden, bike maintenance for teenagers, Pottery, a Barista Course and Home Maintenance Tasks, DIY and how to use power tools for Women, The Community Choir which started there has now been going for over 20 years. The Centre also helps people to re- enter the workforce and has a special carer’s hub. This is important because unpaid carers often become socially isolated and are unable to attend to their own well -being which can result in ill health, depression and burn – out. The hub helps carers through relaxation activities such as music and yoga, information and links to services such as respite care, as well as providing a place to socialise.

According to a University of Wisconsin -Madison article  “Studies show that older adults who are engaged in meaningful programs experience better overall health and well-being and become significant contributors to their communities, rather than passive recipients of services.” Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of U3As Universities of the Third Age – all the joy of learning without the pressure and exams.

U3As - Universities of the Third Age

Often led by retired university lecturers, U3As as they are called, began at a University in France in 1968 and quickly spread throughout Europe, then to Quebec and California. After reaching the UK they were no longer strongly associated with universities and became a global phenomenon. There are now over 3000 groups around the world. Australia alone has 200 of them which have 100,000 members between them. 

Online Resources


This stands for Massive Open Online Courses. There are literally thousands of these on just about any subject you could name. They are available in many languages from institutes around the world including highly respected universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Cambridge. Most are free unless you want some type of accreditation. I have done a few of these and I must say they were more rigorous and intensive than I expected. There are a number of lists around but here's a good place to start. Here are some more.


Thousands of free courses on any topic from Law to Languages, Maths, Technology and Science, Business, History, Education and the Arts are also available through the UK registered Open University.


See hundreds of free Language classes online at the Open University.

Open Culture: Includes less well known languages such as Lithuanian, Finish and Bulgarian, Persian and Bambara as spoken in Mali.

Duolingo: Oldest son swears by this one. Lessons come in short bite sized daily segments which he does on his way to work.

Click here for more including American Sign Language here.


Music is a great way to meet others and also has many other benefits from reducing psychological stress to preventing cognitive decline. Read more here. You're never too old to learn a musical instrument either. I'm not sure what this costs, but first lessons are free.   


 You can't go far these days if you can't use a computer or your iPhone. There are lots of free online courses where you can learn how. Some examples below, but there are many more. 

 Free quality online classes for seniors on how to use various internet websites. Step-by-step guides are available for seniors to learn everything from social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram to entertainment sites like Hulu, Spotify and service sites such as Airbnb and Amazon, Expedia, Uber along with several others. Online. See all courses here

 Senior Connects

Senior Connects builds computer labs and teaches computer and internet classes to older adults at senior centers, retirement communities and independent living. The program aims to bridge the digital divide and ensure digital literacy for older adults. Online. Watch Video

The Digital Age Project

Free toolkit and how to course on teaching digital literacy to older people. So that older adults can feel comfortable getting online and learning and exploring digital devices such as tablets, smart phones, laptops and computers with ease. North Ireland.

Online classes to learn basic computer skills and improve digital literacy for those who are uncomfortable using digital devices. Online.


Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), Links 125 colleges and universities 340 cities across all states, who have dedicated courses for over 50s. See the list here. (USA)

As each one operates independently, some charge a membership fee, while others charge on a course or activity basis. Scholarships are available for those who can’t afford them. There are no exams. It’s all about intellectual stimulation and a love of learning. There are a couple of other examples below. The Virtual Community Centre (USA) has more.

DOROT University without Walls

A telephone-based life-long learning program that offers hundreds of senior classes each year over the telephone to provide elderly with limited mobility the opportunity to engage in life-long learning, friendship, information, entertainment, support, intellectual stimulation, and Jewish culture. New York. 

Mather Lifeways Telephone Topics

Free phone in line for older adults to participate in lively discussions. The phone in program provides a social and an educational outlet for older adults and allows connections to occur from the comfort of a senior’s own home. Wide Range of topics. Ninety -day free trial, then $US3.99 per month  Online. Worldwide


Scientists all over the world in the EU, Australia, Africa, the USA and Asia are seeking public help in all sorts of fields such as observing butterfly and bird migration to recording plastic litter in Sweden so there is likely to be something you could be interested in. Many projects can be done from home. See some of the current projects here for International - 12 languages, or by way of example one on bird migration in Australia.


Disclaimer: Apart from those I have tried, I can't speak for the quality of any goods or services mentioned. Nor do I receive any remuneration or reward for doing so. I list them for inspiration only. Check them out thoroughly or discuss with family or friends first to see if they suit your needs and are value for money.

But wait, there's more....

Part II - Social Participation - Let's get Physical