To make your later years “golden years,” it is best not to be all alone.

Isolation can lead to mental, emotional and physical distress, say experts.

“Those of us in social services have known for a long time that the feelings of loneliness and isolation are not good; now we know they’re actually very bad for us and have very serious health consequences,” said Cathy Coleman, Friendly Visitor program manager at Kenosha Area Family and Aging Services.

In September, Coleman organized “Staying Connected Throughout Your Life,” a presentation about the problems of senior loneliness, as well as some solutions.

“Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking,” Coleman said. “Lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.”

Coleman said she was “astounded” when she read recent information regarding seniors and loneliness.

The answer, say those who work with senior populations, is to stay connected, either by reaching out to agencies that offer companionship or becoming a volunteer to help others.

“It’s crucial that whatever you do, you feel you’re connected to something bigger than yourself,” said co-presenter Mike Radke.

Now retired, Radke, a social worker and therapist, has worked in family counseling and hospice care in Kenosha for 40 years and volunteers as a consultant for KAFASI.

Two of KAFASI’s programs are Senior Center Without Walls, or SCWOW, a conference-call phone-in program, and Friendly Visitors, which provides in-home visits to those who request it. “We provide socialization and that emotional connection for people,” Coleman said.

Sally Hayward, another program presenter, told the group that she facilitates a couple of SCWOW programs, including one called The Friendship Circle. “I tell callers to think of it as ‘sitting around my kitchen table,’” she said.

Several in attendance said that volunteering had enriched their lives.

“I was a Friendly Visitor for 15 years and I loved it; now I call in to SCWOW,” shared Carol Bloxdorff. “You meet all these interesting people; there’s always something different. It’s good for people who are homebound and can’t get out much.”

Ed Weaver, a KAFASI volunteer, said he enjoys helping people with small things, like helping a blind woman take her garbage out to the curb once a week. “(Volunteering) gets me out of the house and takes me away from my troubles,” he said.

When Radke asked the group what might prevent some people from volunteering, participants listed “transportation” and simply not being asked to help out.

Some people just find themselves in a rut as they age, suggested Radke.

“People have to search as they get older for purposes to replace old (purposes) that were so fulfilling — work, raising kids, paying off the house,” he said. “Now there are smaller purposes and you have to look for them.”

“Everyone needs to have meaning in his or her life, a purpose, I don’t care how old you are,” Coleman said.

The takeaways to volunteering are many, said Radke and Coleman.

“When you get involved, you get energy,” Radke said.

“It makes us feel good. They have a name for it; it’s called the ‘helpers’ high,’” Coleman said.

Participants and presenters alike agreed that seniors represent a deep pool of volunteer resources.

“There is an untapped potential of seniors with time on their hands,” said Sen. Bob Wirch, himself a KAFASI volunteer.

“I always say that seniors are a lost resource,” agreed Hayward.