AARP’s Fun & Fulfillment Initiative: Helping Older Adults Build Social Connections

By Mark Ogilbee posted 07-21-2022 09:08 AM


AARP’s multifaceted work to help older adults live healthier, happier lives falls into several broad categories, sometimes informally known as health, wealth and self.

Heather Nawrocki, vice president of Experiences & Connections at AARP, leads a team focused specifically on Fun & Fulfillment, which is a part of the “self” aspect of the rubric — and sounds particularly awesome, to boot. We spoke with Nawrocki to learn more about her work and why AARP prioritizes this area. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Fun & Fulfillment sounds awfully... fun! Why has AARP identified Fun & Fulfillment as an area of special focus? 

We look at Fun & Fulfillment in the context of social connections. For example, we started holding an event called Movies for Grownups, where we bring people together to watch a free movie. One of the outcomes that we didn’t expect with this program was that people really did feel more socially connected. They told us how great it was to be in a group of their peers; maybe they met somebody really nice sitting next to them. So, the sense of community was really strong. That was our first clue that there was a “there” there. 

So we started to think about what else we could do that’s on the fun side. We look for things that will be a common interest for people, then design the event in a way that gives people an opportunity to connect with others and find a sense of community. So it’s not really just about fun, it’s about social connection. 


So there’s a deeper foundation for this initiative than “just having fun.” 

We did some work a few years ago to define where AARP should focus in the “self space,” and really zeroed in on social connections as the area where we thought we could make the most impact for people over 50. Social connections are so important: If you are socially isolated, it can impact your health outcomes and shorten your life. 

We’re thinking about these things because people who have a shared interest come together. And it doesn’t need to be a formal club. We’ve all experienced this, right? Maybe you and other people in your office are really into basketball, and you start to feel that sense of connection with that group of people. That sense of connection with others is what we want to foster. 


How do you coordinate these in-person activities? 

The Fun & Fulfillment team at National Office is focused on trying to scale — that’s how what I’m doing is different than the state offices. The AARP office in Boston, for example, may host a Fun & Fulfillment-type event on their own, but that is a single event. I’m focused on the kind of events that can be replicated and scaled, such as Movies for Grownups. For that, we might have one person here in the national AARP office working with a movie studio to be able to have a hundred screenings of a film across the country, and we book all the theaters. Then we partner with the state offices to have local volunteers show up, greet people and run the film. 

When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot very quickly to a virtual offering. We tried to hold Movies for Grownups on a popular social media platform, but that became a problem because of spammers. So we moved to a closed virtual platform that has a strong chat feature, which allows people to interact while the film is going on. Lots of people loved that, because they felt like, “Oh my gosh, I’m watching this film with a thousand other people.” 


How do you get the word out about these Fun & Fulfillment events? 

We promote them through various AARP channels as much as we can: We send out emails, the virtual events are on the Virtual Community Center, and there is some advertising. Of course, you can search online and find information about the events. 

My team runs the Virtual Community Center, which aggregates not only what my team is doing on a scaled-up basis, but also what a lot of the state offices and other people around AARP are doing in the virtual space. It's searchable and sortable, and people can sign up for events from across AARP. 


Are there other types of Fun & Fulfillment events that you’ve organized? 

Yes — we're doing a lot more than movies in the virtual space. We have had One Day University and food history lectures, we have had dance parties, we have had cooking classes, we have fitness classes. There's quite a gamut of what Fun & Fulfillment has been offering virtually.  


COVID-related restrictions have been significantly relaxed. With that in mind, are you planning new in-person events? 

We just restarted the in-person Movies for Grownups screening program after a long hiatus due to the pandemic. We are also piloting a book swap for members of The Girlfriend e-newsletter, which has a very robust community and book club associated with it. The idea is for people to bring books, put the books on a shelf, and take some other books home. It’s a chance for people to get together in a friendly environment, with refreshments and so forth. We ran several pilot book swaps, and now we hope to scale it. 

Prior to the pandemic, we had started having in-person trivia night events. We switched to doing those virtually, but we hope to bring those back in person soon. 


What does the future of Fun & Fulfillment look like? 

We're really interested in how we're all going to adjust to this post-pandemic world. We’re going to continue virtual events and engagements, because virtual is here to stay — but also because virtual events allow us to reach people across the country in ways that we can’t in person. 

What I envision for the future of Fun & Fulfillment at AARP is a hybrid environment: We’ll have virtual opportunities, but we’ll also bring back some of that great in-person engagement because those can provide an even stronger sense of community.