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AARP’s Virtual Ethel Group Spawns Real-Life Friendships

Three senior women sitting at cafe table, laughing
Yellow Dog Productions/Getty Images

En español | Janet Armstrong, 63, joined AARP’s Ethel Circle Facebook community a year and a half ago to connect with other women her age.

Months later, she ran into a fellow “Ethel,” as the women in the group call themselves, while shopping in a bath and body store. The woman recognized Armstrong from her profile picture, and they got to talking. The next thing she knew they were meeting for dinner.

Now they’re part of a larger group of women in central Tennessee who regularly meet for lunch and other activities. One member is planning a pool party at her house for the group, all fellow Ethel Circle members.

“These are like total strangers on a Facebook page, and now we’re going to each other’s homes,” Armstrong says. “It’s been phenomenal. It’s kind of weird, but it’s kind of great, too.”

Nearly 100 similar groups have since formed in cities and states around the country. Known as The Ethel Gathering Groups, they are creating friendships out of virtual connections made as part of the Ethel Circle Facebook community.

AARP launched the Facebook group in 2022 for readers of our weekly e-newsletter, The Ethel (named for AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus), which targets women 60 and older. The group aims to be a supportive place where older women can talk freely about the joys and challenges of growing older, says Shelley Emling, AARP’s executive editor of specialized content.

“What I noticed from the very beginning, within a few weeks, is that many of the women were lonely. Many of them were retired and they didn’t have a real sense of purpose anymore. Their husbands had died, or they were divorced or estranged from their children. And they were looking to make connections,” says Emling, who runs the Facebook group and approves all new members.

“Somebody would say, ‘Hey, I live in Cleveland. Does anybody else live in Cleveland? Would you like to grab lunch sometime or coffee?” Emling says. “When we started noticing that members were meeting up organically, we decided we really needed to help them create their own group for their town, their county, their area — and help them with planning events.”

So AARP launched the first Ethel Gathering Groups in January as part of the organization’s work to combat loneliness and social isolation, which can bring a higher risk of physical and mental health ailments.

In just a few months, Ethel Gathering Groups have sprouted up in 34 states, with several states hosting more than one. In Texas, for example, nine groups have formed in cities like Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Waco and Houston, and there are three groups in the Chicago area alone. Organizers are all AARP volunteers who receive training on how to moderate a group and grow an online community.

Fostering connections

The Annapolis, Maryland, group, which has more than 200 members, meets for monthly hikes and has splintered off into subgroups based on members’ interests, says Yarrow, 80, the group’s organizer (she uses only her first name personally and professionally). There’s a lunch group, a journaling group and a strollers group for women who prefer to walk on pavement, among others.

“We’re just trying to make it really easy for people [with similar interests] to find each other,” Yarrow says.

Armstrong, who leads the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, group, says her three best friends live out of state, so it’s been rewarding getting to know women nearby whom she can call on a whim if she’s feeling lonely or bored.

“It’s so fascinating to sit with people that you don’t know and find out all these details about their lives, and I’ve bonded with a couple of them,” she says. “Every time we get together we get one or two more.”

AARP’s Emling says she’s been amazed at how much the Ethels have “been there for each other.” She says one woman posted recently about celebrating her 70th birthday alone, and within 10 minutes there were about 700 comments on the post.

“Many of them said, ‘What city do you live in? I’d be happy to come by with a card for you or a cupcake,’” Emling says. The next day, the woman posted that she’d been moved to tears and had never felt so much love and support on her birthday.

“It was just so sweet and overwhelming. It was fantastic,” Emling says.

The Ethels will gather in Louisville, Kentucky, for their first national event June 7-9, with hundreds of women expected to meet for a Kentucky Derby–themed girls’ weekend.

Learn more about the Ethel Circle and how to join or organize an Ethel Gathering Group near you or contact for more information.

Natalie Missakian covers federal and state policy and writes AARP’s Fighting for You Every Day blog. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Haven Register and daily newspapers in Ohio. She has also written for the AARP Bulletin, the Hartford Business Journal and other publications.

Also of Interest:

Why Friends Are Good for Your Health and Well-Being
13 Free or Low-Cost Things You Can Do Now to Deal With Loneliness
7 Ways to Conquer Loneliness Without Technology

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