Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Shompa Mazumder had never painted before she moved into The Village retirement community in Gainesville 15 months ago and tried an art class.

“The first thing I did, the teacher said, ‘You’re pretty good. Why don’t you come back?’ ” Mazumder recalled. “Then I really got into it.”

Since then, Mazumder has taken up her brush during a recent “paint out” event in the community’s garden, painting a picture of a fountain and ducks, and collaborated with the residents in the community’s woodworking club. A product of that collaboration — a wood pendant decorated with an ornate elephant that Mazumder painted — is on display in a community gift shop.

She said it’s been invigorating to fi nd a new passion and skill later in life and that painting, along with a slew of other activities like yoga and pilates, is a way to meet people with similar interests and to make friends.

Mazumder’s experience is an example of the type of social engagement that researchers say is key to living longer with a better quality of life.

A recent Brigham Young University analysis looked at 70 studies with more than 3.4 million combined participants and concluded that loneliness, social isolation and living alone increase the chances of premature death.

BYU researchers said loneliness and social isolation should be deemed public health threats similar to conditions like obesity.

A 2012 University of California San Francisco study looked at 1,600 older adults and concluded that those who said they were lonely were more likely to see their health decline or die over a six-year span than those who reported being content socially.

A study by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Department of Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago concluded that a higher level of social engagement results in better cognitive function. Against that backdrop, clubs for woodworking or painting at The Village and other retirement communities are not just about woodworking or painting but bringing people together.

“We know if our residents are socially engaged, they have a higher quality of life,” said Rebecca Catalanotto, the health director for The Village.

There is research that bolsters that point of view. At The Village, staff works to keep residents active and engaged through a program dubbed “Vitality 2.0.”

When residents move into the retirement community, they take a short questionnaire to provide information on their interests and hobbies. The activities, events and clubs at the northwest Gainesville retirement community of more than 700 residents between the ages of 58 to 104 are then tailored toward those interests.

Knitting and crocheting classes, a bird-watching group and the paint-out in the garden event all had their roots in that vitality initiative.

As part of the program, last summer the community hired Nancy Cameron as a resident navigator, who describes her job as “working to help people get socially engaged with the other residents as soon as they move in.”

Several miles south of The Village, Oak Hammock at the University of Florida has a social committee that plans events for residents; a music ensemble featuring resident musicians who may not have played an instrument in years; and its Institute for Learning in Retirement, which has educational courses and discussion groups open to seniors from both Oak Hammock and the Gainesville community at-large.

Forrest Crawford, the chairman of the Institute for Learning in Retirement board, said courses in areas such as opera, Greek and Roman mythology, health advancements and even dark matter and discussions on issues such as Syria and the Middle East and U.S. policy in Africa are intended to keep seniors learning and engaged.

“It’s intellectually stimulating for people,” Crawford said. “This kind of program plus physical exercise, they’re instrumental for people.”

While retirement communities have residents and activities on site, the risks of isolation may be greater for seniors who live alone in an apartment or home. ElderCare of Alachua County Executive Director Anthony Clarizio said the organization has worked to make the Gainesville/Alachua County Senior Center in northwest Gainesville a hub that offers seniors living at home the same type of activities they would fi nd in a retirement community.

The planning and coordination required in woodworking or knitting help maintain cognitive skills while yoga or tai chi help with fitness and the spirit, Clarizio said.

Developing a new circle of friends later in life is another benefit, Clarizio said

“One thing seniors often tell us is as they grow older, their social network gets smaller and smaller,” he said.

Some common health advice to get seniors socially engaged include getting involved through volunteer work or the activities at a local senior center.

Finding shared meals at a community or senior center and working to stay mobile, even on a three-wheel bike for those may not drive anymore, were other recommended steps to circulate socially.

At The Village, resident Terry Morrow said he has seen firsthand how getting involved in an activity can expand your social circle.

Morrow started the retirement community’s woodworking club after he moved from Turkey Creek Golf & Country Club about 18 months ago and donated his tools. The club averages about 15 to 20 people at each meeting who get together to socialize and to display the bowls, fishing poles and other projects they’ve made.

Morrow said he and his wife decided to move from their home to the retirement community while they were still able to participate in the activities that draw residents together.

“We knew too many people that waited too long,” he said.

The story originally featured in The Gainesville Sun.