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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Isolation, Loneliness and Solitude in Old Age

category_bug_journal2.gif Last week, on a post titled Youthiness in Old Age, Monica Devine, who blogs at Between Two Rivers, left this comment:

“Speaking of contrarian, I've always wondered about this: I'm sure it's true that socializing with family and friends prolongs and enhances the life span and experience of aging for old people, but, could this notion be over-rated?

“Maybe being older generates a desire to go inward, be less social. Is it so bad to want to be alone, to enjoy silence and eschew so much socializing?”

Well, you don't have to convert me to Monica's way of thinking. I like my friends. I enjoy lunches, dinners and other events with them. And I seem to be spending increasing amounts of time working with like-minded people on various elder issues in my community.

But when those engagements are done I am always eager to be home alone (if you don't count the cat). Compared to a lot of people I have known, I seem to require more solitude than some others.

And that word – solitude – makes the difference at any age because it is almost always a personal choice. When being alone is unwanted, however – usually labeled isolation or loneliness – then there is no doubt it can negatively affect health and I think it is a condition more often found in elders than younger people.

There are numerous reasons I'm sure you could name on your own. The late geriatrician, Robert N. Butler, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, named some of them:

“We cannot underestimate the disruptive effects of loneliness and anxiety upon the physical and mental health of the isolated person...” he writes.

“Social and personal isolation is difficult...for old people, imposed as it often is by external forces like widowhood, the death of friends, mandatory retirement, poverty, physical and mental impairments and transportation difficulties.”

In a more recent book, The Longevity Prescription, Butler notes that people older than 65 commit about 19 percent of suicides in the U.S. Further, he tells us, depression – often a result of unwanted social isolation – has long been identified as one of the major causes.

I am honored to have known Dr. Butler and I don't doubt a word of what he says about this. Nevertheless, I believe there is more to it, that some of us are not unhappy to find ourselves more often alone in old age than when we were younger, and to even seek our solitude.

But as Monica's comment implies, we who enjoy a lot of time alone are often seen as suspect by the culture at large. Look at how negative are the words we have to describe such people: hermit, recluse, loner, lone wolf, introvert, outsider. It's not far from there to believe anyone like that must be lonely and therefore in danger of illness, even early death.

Not true. Not always.

Also, Monica is on to something when she writes, “Maybe being older generates a desire to go inward, be less social.” Carl Jung's seven tasks of aging, which come to many elders quite naturally (without even knowing who Jung was), pretty much demand introspection and, therefore, solitude:

• Facing the reality of aging and dying
• Life review
• Defining life realistically
• Letting go of the ego
• Finding new rooting in the self
• Determining the meaning of one's life
• Rebirth – dying with life

And, for me, there is one more plus on the side of solitude: being social exhausts me nowadays. After a meal or visit with friends, even those I love and adore, I not only want to be alone for awhile, I need it to restore myself.

It would be a mitzvah for all of us to be alert to signs of isolation and loneliness in friends and neighbors and to help when we can. But we should also be careful to make the distinction between those who are unhappy or depressed about it and others who enjoy their solitude.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary Hertslet: Home Sweet Home


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Two comments.

Yes, we should be alert to signs of loneliness in others. We should also make sure our friends know we are NOT lonely, so they don't worry about us.

Our wonderful communication systems (internet, smartphones) make it so much easier to stay engaged and in contact with others. We are so fortunate!

At any time of the year but especially during the holiday season, I am starting to turn down more invitations. The socializing leaves me exhausted. Exhaustion often leads to depression, and I'm learning to guard my energy and solitude. I'll eventually learn how to deal with the guilt trips that people lay on me for the choices I'm making. I'm reaching an age where I'm tired of pleasing other people to the detriment of my mental and physical well-being.

Most often my preference is to be at home alone with my sweet feline friend.

Great post. Too many people confuse alone and lonely. They are not the same. You can be content alone while lonely in a crowd.

I also need time alone to ‘recharge the batteries.’ I’m quite happy alone for long periods of time. I guess I just like myself.

Being older with a debilitating chronic illness enforces solitude and stillness, but I'm finding this a time for welcome breathing and reflection. What has my life meant? What do I still want to accomplish? What is worthy of expending precious energy? My body is failing at a speed and in ways that I didn't anticipate due to the illness, but I welcome the time for introspection. I am coming to terms with failures and weaknesses and learning to relish the accomplishments.

HuffingtonPost just published an article by Sophia Dembling that discusses being an introvert...in a positive way. I couldn't believe how many of her comments seemed to describe me to a T.

Ronni's comment about socializing exhausting her is echoed by Ms.Dembling, "...after a weekend of socializing, I need several days of quiet solitude to recover...".
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sophia-dembling/nine-signs-that-you-might_b_2251932.html#slide=1849758

I agree completely. I am an introvert who has always needed great chunks of alone time. A year ago I moved to a new state and began working from home. This has turned out to be at times even more aloneness than I can handle :)

The word "introvert" is not negative; it is neutral. It was Jung who originated the idea that people can be introverts or extroverts and that either choice is healthy.

By definition, introverts gain their energy internally, while extroverts get theirs from being with people. Thus, introverts need to turn inward to recharge after a time of socializing.

I am an introvert--have been all my life. It may be that elderhood will intensify this tendency, but it isn't anything new to me.

Just as people can be introverted or extroverted, so can cultures. The American culture is extroverted, most Asian cultures are introverted. Thus, in the U.S., it is introverts who feel like misfits.

I recommend the recent book "Quiet" for more information on introverts, much of it from research.

Jung was the one who primarily gave us the Introversion/Extroversion scale (have you taken the Myers-Briggs personality test?). In essence, if interacting with people energizes you, you are an extrovert. If not, if they take away your energy, you are an introvert. Also, we have a varying need to be with people; I have never had that need to the degree that some have. Further, I have known some people who are miserable when they are alone. The reasons for both are multi-faceted; there are tests to determine if babies are introverts/extroverts, so a lot of it is innate. We are all different in our needs and wants. Our happiness depends on whether we figure this out and how we deal with it.

I took a test in the 90's and came out equally extrovert and introvert--I'm both! I love going places and being with people, but I also love just being with my cats and having nothing on the calendar. As I've gotten older I find the nothing-on-th-calender/cat time is becoming preferred!

Of course, the computer always makes me feel very connected to the world. On occasion I've had to do without my computer for a few days (repairs/power outage) and it is completely weird. I have thought about how it would be to be old- old without a computer.....and I'm pretty sure I'd despair if it came to that.

A call to action for introverts!

TED 2012 / Susan Cain: The power of introverts

http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

I had an artist friend who lived alone across the street. If she raised her curtain, I knew she was ok. She too liked being alone. Years later she moved to the mountains at the urging of new friends. One morning she had a stroke. There was no safety net in the mountains, and she lay, unable to move, face down in her own vomit. She lived another year incoherently in a hospital far, far away, and her wonderful art work vanished somewhere hopefully nnot into the trash.

Alone is ok, just make sure you have a safety net.

Jung forgot 'Letting go of people who make us feel bad'! Who needs em'?! There are so many lovely people out there, aging should allow us to let negative people fade away. For the most part they don't know they're doing it, but it's exhausting being around people who: always know a better way (I'm a recovering 'helpful comment' person), have to be right, have it worse than anyone else, interrupt you mid-sentence, feel compelled to make snide remarks about almost everything you say, and lastly - revel in poor health (real or imagined) and feel the need to share all the details.

I don’t think we need to read other people’s observations; only use our own. One wonders if those who have been popular and the center of attraction when younger find life harder in old age. On the other hand, those who may have been ostracized, labeled unkindly or avoided for various reasons have somehow been conditioned for old age, unknowingly. Why shouldn’t older people feel a little down when the biggest growth industry in this country is nursing homes, assisted living, etc. Just look around your area.

Roni:
I prefer being alone; loneliness doesn't enter the equation. I revel in solitude. I like to be with people when I choose, not when I must. At this point, I have that ability. What's not to like?

As we age the noise and activity of others does become more exhausting...but like everything in life we need friends and family in balanced doses with listening to music and reading poetry.

Someone I knew quite well once ran into a neighbor of mine and during their conversation, my name came up. The neighbor said she didn’t really know me because I was a “private” person which surprised the one who did know me. I was in my thirties then. Another time while in my early fifties, I again heard about another label, that of being a “loner.” Probably because rather than eating every day with the same group of women, I preferred reading quietly or swimming in the university pool where I worked on my lunch hour.

I have always enjoyed alone time and if now labeled an old lady who is a private person and a loner…so be it.

I relish time spent with friends and family but continue to need my space.

I have commented so many times that I enjoy living alone that it has become redundant. My friends and family all know that I am never lonely and am selfishly enjoying being good to myself. As Marc said, "What's not to like."

I never thought of myself as an introvert or an extrovert. I was never alone in my entire life until I was widowed and my last child stopped using the revolving door. In those days I did not feel the need for solitude. So to say I am an introvert would be misleading.

I consider myself a chameleon and pragmatically adapt to life's changes.

I've been a shy introvert all my life but was raised to be a "pleaser." That's an uncomfortable way to live. It makes you feel "different" and you worry that others disapprove and think less of you. It's a relief to have finally "outgrown" the need to please others and to finally be able to indulge my introversion and enjoy my solitude. I worry that someday that solitude will be my undoing (accident or sudden illness with no one around). But I'd rather spend my remaining years enjoying the solitude than keeping up the "pleaser" facade. I just hope my family understands. I think they do, but I'm too introverted to discuss it with them.

In a nutshell - I can be alone and never feel lonely.

It's good to be with family, friends and be active in the community but when my body tells me to "stop" I listen.

I have a limited amount of energy and keep learning that I have to be selective about how I spend it.

Fortunately I really enjoy just being home and doing whatever I want to do when I want to do it.

I am an introvert, too, and definitely owning it more as life goes on. It's a no-brainer that American culture in general is hugely prejudiced against us, and it's sadly unsurprising that that prejudice would continue through life.

What IS surprising, though, is how few people see that the question is always really "who decides?" For example, solitude is chosen, loneliness imposed--sociability is chosen and bullying imposed.

When we have diminished choice in how we spend our time, we ALL resent it, no matter what our choice would be.

Susan Cain, author of the book, "Quiet," has already been mentioned by others. Here's a link to a quiz on her website that can help you understand if you're an introvert: http://bit.ly/v0g4SP I'm particularly fond of Ms. Cain's work because she makes such an effort to explain that introverts are not necessarily shy. We can be quite capable of interacting in a group, even performing in front of a crowd, but we need our quiet time!

In my experience..

isolation by choice is a luxury.

isolation by circumstance is hell.

It all depends on what side of the word you live on.

I think choice is what makes the difference. If you choose to spend time alone, you're enjoying your solitude, but if you're alone, not by choice, but because you have no alternative, then you're apt to be miserable.

My gift of solitude and alone at this time,
moving back to a rural area
surrounded by woods -
is Heaven
A past of marriage, 4 children, business - I could hardly think.
Now I am finally beginning to know "me".
I can choose to be among others
like this morning at a gathering
But was first to leave and home
is wonderful.
I stay so busy, reading,writing,camera,taking care of home and gardens.
No time to be lonely.
I have been given a wonderful gift in these 3 score and 10 years...

I too really need my alone time. I'm introverted but not shy. I like and enjoy people but always needed recharge time, at 70 I find I need more and more recharge time. I have several scheduled semi-social time during any given week but walking in my door is the cure for all. Big party requires several days of peace and quiet. I have a small number of truly close friends, the habit of a lifetime. Quoting Sophia Dembling "Any attrition in our friendships can be a problem because replacing an intimate is difficult." So true, so I try to get out in the community more so as not to be the last woman standing so to speak.

What is the hardest to deal with for me is this time of the year. It isn't so much about being alone. It is with dealing with all the inquiries as to with whom and where I'll be celebrating the holidays and that I should be so busy preparing for it all.

I can relate to being a people pleaser. I have spent too much time and worry about that.

I don't have any grandchildren and have nothing to add when that is part of the conversation.

I have had wonderful conversations with strangers on different occasions more so than with some I've tried to befriend because I thought I needed to make make them.

I guess I sound like the "Grouch before Christmas".

I truly enjoy being around people. One reason people prefer to be alone, perhaps, women especially, is that they always feel they have to be doing things: providing services, making small talk, making some sort of impression when they are with others. In other words, for them it's work. So I've learned just to "hang out" without expecting a lot of the situation. After all, I'm here with you all to enjoy myself! However, I do zero in on the old people at any gathering I attend, those in their 80's or 90's, because people do not come up to them or talk to them, usually, but just leave them to sit. No wonder elders may say they would rather stay home with the cat!
One thing that I have always enjoyed is going somewhere, like a coffee shop, and just sitting and reading, all by myself. I also like striking up the occasional conversation with strangers, if they look interesting and seem as if they want to talk, in stores, at bus stops, in exercise class, and so on.
I'm not really what you would call gregarious, but I do like to be around my fellow humans. I have some introverted friends, and I notice that they prefer structured social situations and don't do well with noise and confusion, and they report having always been that way.I think some of that is innate. My mother in law, for instance, would never talk to anyone to whom she had not been introduced. To go up to someone and introduce herself to someone was out of her behavior range. She was VERY introverted.
What I like best is spending time with my husband and kids and grandkids and with close friends. People I know well. But I don't mind being a little bit of a social butterfly sometimes.

I had an acquaintance tell me the other day that I "really need to get out more and be with people." I looked at her startled. After all, I work 20 hours a week at a public library, I'm involved on a regular basis with my family (especially my four young grandchildren). Additionally, I serve on committees at my Temple and I occasionally go to lunch/dinner/movies/art exhibits, etc. with friends.

It's true that many times I turn down social activities. Most of the time it's due to expenses. I am very careful as to how I spend my money. I don't do things just to do them. I have to WANT to do them. In other words, I don't go to a play or concert just because it's something to do. Unfortunately, I'm not in that kind of financial situation.

Right now, my life works for me. I don't feel a need to be busy all the time and fill every minute of every day with activities. I savor my time alone. It's EXTREMELY important to me, so I make sure that I get it.

Frankly, I am NEVER bored. I am fortunate that many of the things I enjoy I can do by myself: photography, gardening, reading, cooking, and even dancing (I crank up the music and slide and glide to the rhythm)!

Do I EVER get lonely? You bet I do. It's a loneliness that creeps in when I want to share the "little conversations" of life. In all honesty, I miss the "pillow talk" that only a significant other can provide.

But, that's not where things are right now. So, in the meantime I'll enjoy all that I have, including my own company!!

You've expressed great wisdom here. There is a fine balance between loneliness and solitude. I choose solitude much of the time. I would never choose loneliness.

I describe myself as a "gregarious loner" I do love company but the majority of my time is spent in peaceful solitude with my dog. Reflecting. Writing. Reading. Knitting. Dreaming. And yes, I too need recovery time from a surfeit of company.
XO
WWW

I agree that being alone and loneliness are two quite different feeling experiences. I rarely feel lonely but was keenly aware of being alone periodically after my husband died. I can identify with missing instances of intimacy shared with a significant other i.e. "pillow talk."

Just today, I was waiting for a traffic light change, glanced over to the car in the next lane to observe an older couple chatting as they waited, too. I felt a slight twinge as I immediately thought of how much my husband and I had enjoyed our driving trips around the U.S. together -- that comfortable state of conversing with each other when we felt like it, augmented by long periods of silence as we each enjoyed our "solitude together" lost in our own thoughts -- sometimes shared, sometimes not but with no expectation we needed to do so.

In lieu of acquiring a new partner which is definitely not on my agenda, I've thought it might be fun to have a girlfriend slumber party, as I recall from my youth, when a group of us gathered and talked way into the early morning hours. Logistics are all different now since some of us might not be able to stay awake, or couldn't bounce back as easily the next day if we did stay awake. Recall doing this midlife once, too. Problem now is the people I'd want to invite mostly live elsewhere, aren't well enough to travel, or they've died.

I pretty much fluctuate with times I enjoy being with people and other times I prefer being alone; generally enjoy meeting new people.

I am so glad to find this website. Life is slowing down, it is quieter and I am trying to find my way. Although I am no particularly keen on being with people all of the time, I am lonely sometimes.

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