Join the club — so many options in Howard County
When Marge Ewertz was working full-time as a nurse at Johns Hopkins, she started taking Mondays and Fridays off so she could go on bike rides with an over-60 cycling group.
“I had to retire because I was having way too much fun biking,” Ewertz said.
Now 70, Ewertz bikes with three groups, including Cycle2Health, a peer-led club coordinated by Howard County’s
Office on Aging and Independence.
“We communicate when we ride,” she said. “It’s just fun to meet people with all different backgrounds.”
We humans are social beings by nature. Indeed, scientists announced three years ago that loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking cigarettes or being obese. Another large study in 2018 found that loneliness increases the risk of dementia by 40 percent.
But it’s not always easy to make connections with others, particularly with Covid still in the background.
Fortunately, many clubs and social groups in our area are available to boost both mood and health. Most clubs welcome people of all ages, and regular attendance isn’t required.
The 20-year-old group Hiking Around Baltimore, for instance, has some members who are in their 30s and some who are in their late 70s. Hikes range from easy to difficult.
Retiree Greg Eder, who joined Hiking Around Baltimore in 2010 and now is a hike leader, has made many friends through the club — and even met a girlfriend on the trail.
“The older you get, the harder it is to meet people,” said Eder, who lives in Ellicott City. “People sometimes are intimidated coming to something for the first time, but in general, no one wants to hike alone,” he said. “There’s security in hiking in a group. You don’t have to worry about getting lost.”
During the pandemic, hiking has remained a safer way to be around people. Hiking Around Baltimore, which people can join on MeetUp.com, has amassed 8,500 members in its two decades (though not all are active).
Besides being a safe form of exercise, hiking can improve your mental health, too, Eder pointed out.
“It uplifts everyone. It’s nice to get out in nature and see something different.”
Rotary clubs do good together
Another way to get involved is to volunteer with a tried-and-true organization like Rotary International. Howard County has eight Rotary clubs, which meet at different times. The number of monthly meetings and annual dues also vary.
But the mission is the same as it has been since 1905, when the service organization was founded: to help others.
“The world needs good people more than ever right now,” said Dr. Geetha Jayaram, leader of District 7860, which includes Howard County. “We have done an extraordinary amount of projects, not just in our district but around the globe. We would love to have [older adults] join us.”
Volunteers can participate in many feel-good events each month, from cleaning up parks and watersheds, to giving away food, to building an oyster reef — all while making connections.
“Each club has its own projects and its own volunteer work,” said Dawn Wittfelt, the district’s membership chair. “People definitely build relationships, and there’s also business networking that goes on.”
Bocce — the new shuffleboard?
While volunteer work can be taxing, outdoor games are more relaxing. And there’s always a game of some sort under way in Howard County’s many parks and facilities.
Bill Dickinson, a Woodbine resident in his 80s, is captain of a local bocce team called “Over the Hill,” which plays at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia. Overseen by Howard County Recreation & Parks, the 120-player bocce league has become the focus of Dickinson’s life — he even built a 60-foot-long court in his back yard.
“It’s what we do when we have a family get together. It’s just a lot of fun,” he said.
Dickinson and his wife discovered the Italian game of bocce (pronounced BAA-chee), in which players throw balls underhanded toward a target, about 10 years ago, while wintering in Florida.
The sport is perfect for older adults, he pointed out. “Physically it’s easy. It’s very accommodating of difficulties that older people have.
“In Florida, I’ve got a Vietnam veteran [on my team] who’s in a wheelchair and on oxygen, and he’s as good as any of them,” Dickinson said. “Old folks used to play shuffleboard. Now, it’s bocce.”
Overcome challenges together
Of course, not everyone can or wants to hike, bike or play bocce. People with health problems can find common ground in support groups for conditions from diabetes to addiction to dementia.
For instance, people with Parkinson’s disease compare notes once a month via a Zoom session hosted by Baltimore-based Jewish Community Services (JCS). Michelle Goldberg, senior manager of community engagement and partnerships, oversees JCS’s dozen support groups and facilitates the Parkinson’s group.
“This group is very upbeat,” Goldberg said. “Someone was very nervous to come — he was struggling with [the diagnosis] — and a guy said, ‘Look at me! I’ve had it for 20 years.”
From their Zoom rectangles, each person asks questions, offers suggestions, recommends doctors, and talks about what exercises help alleviate symptoms.
“With Parkinson’s, it’s not an exact science,” Goldberg said. “When people offer each other ideas, it’s sort of like troubleshooting.”
Find Good Company on Zoom
When the pandemic hit, Goldberg and a colleague at JCS decided to do something positive: start a conversation group for ordinary people over 60 who may be stuck at home.
Three years later, about a dozen people continue to meet on Zoom on the first and third Wednesdays of each month for a lunchtime conversation called Good Company.
“We always start by introducing ourselves and catching up on what’s new,” said the group’s facilitator, Rozi Rice, volunteer coordinator at JCS.
“I’m there to encourage conversation, but we don’t put anyone on the spot…I have some icebreaker prompts to encourage conversation. We’ll play Family Feud or Jeopardy, so the hour goes quickly.”
One member said that before she attended Good Company, she expected to hear “a bunch of seniors complaining,” Rice remembered. But after the hour was up, she said, “I’ve never been around a group of more positive and engaging people.”
Another participant said that since the pandemic, “she has more virtual friends now than she has real-life friends,” Rice reported.
Rice, who is herself an older adult, said, “I get as much out of it as they do. It’s wonderful to see older adults who are active and interesting and engaging — and they’re all welcome.
“We would love to have anyone join us. We’re always happy to have new people,” Rice said.
To join Cycle2Health, call (410) 313-5940. Find out about hikes organized by Hiking Around Baltimore via Meetup.com, an excellent resource for local clubs of all kinds.
To join Rotary International, visit rotary7620.org or call 1-866-GO-ROTARY.
Learn about Howard County’s many programs and leagues at howardcountymd.gov/rap.
For more information about Good Company or the Parkinson’s support group, visit jcsbalt.org or call (410) 843-7325.