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In Michigan, Combating Social Isolation with Beer

A group of adults enjoy beer and food at a brewery taproom
Members enjoy a night out at an AARP On Tap event at the Creston Brewery taproom in Grand Rapids.
Photo by Sylvia Jarrus

Lively happy hours featuring pints of lager, bottles of IPA and mugs of hard cider are connecting older Michigan residents through an AARP program that’s spreading from Grand Rapids to the rest of the state.

Billed as AARP On Tap, the meetups kicked off in early 2018 as a way to promote friendships, especially among people whose ready-made support systems were lost due to moving, retirement or widowhood.

With the cooperation of area brewpubs, chief organizer John Ziemann, 78, and other AARP Michigan volunteers have established monthly gatherings throughout “Beer City,” aka Grand Rapids, known for 90-plus area breweries.

Several dozen people usually attend the 4-to-6:30-p.m. events, said Ziemann, with AARP providing snacks and brewers offering a modest discount on beverages.

Ziemann, a retired university conference director from Grand Rapids, puts his event-planning skills to use. When coffee hours were proposed, he thought it would be too limiting and might not appeal to men.

“We thought we’d have more fun going to a brewery,” he said. “I called the president of the Beer City Brewers Guild, and they put out the word. Fifteen breweries responded, and eventually, we went to all 15.”

On Tap has branched out to include distilleries and wineries. The common theme is a convivial atmosphere that gets strangers talking to one another.

Beer and brain health

“Isolation is as detrimental as smoking,” said Jennifer Feuerstein, associate state director for AARP Michigan. “At every On Tap event, we do something that ties in a brain-health activity.”

The icebreakers range from stand-up comedy to line dancing to Lego contests to balloon-tying lessons. “Live music is always a hit,” she added.

In September, AARP On Tap moved to the resort town of Saugatuck, for a ride on the Star of Saugatuck, a stern-wheeler on the Kalamazoo River.

“More than 200 people signed up for that one, so we had to add a second cruise” the next week, said Ziemann. After the river tour, the group adjourned to the Saugatuck Brewing Co.

Linda Yost, 68, of Grand Rapids, enjoyed the second cruise but hadn’t planned to hit the taproom. The folks she met aboard were so friendly, though, that she changed her mind.

“Several volunteers came over, asked me about myself and made me feel very welcome,” she said. “I thought, Wow!

Organizers in other areas of the state are emulating the idea. Lansing events took place in July and October, and several more are in the works for 2020, said AARP Michigan’s Karen Kafantaris.

“It was a good fit, as we try to do fun-with-a-purpose events,” she said. AARP membership is not required. Those who turn out can learn about activities and volunteer opportunities in a low-key gathering.

After the Saugatuck event, Yost, a retired administrative assistant, ran into some fellow cruisers at another AARP program and has found her circle of acquaintances growing.

“It kind of snowballs,” she said. “I will definitely go again. It’s a way to have a social life when all of your friends aren’t connected by work.”

Find On Tap events at

Melissa Preddy is a writer living in Plymouth, Mich.

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