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Monday, 07 July 2014

On Loneliness and Old Age

Have you ever had a spell of loneliness? I don't mean those times when, for a few days or a week or so, everyone you know seems to be overworked or out of town. That happens sometimes and it goes away.

No, I mean bone-deep craving for a human connection that isn't there and feels like it never will be.

Maybe you had moved to a new city and didn't know anyone yet. Or maybe, like me when I was very young, late teens/early twenties, I was on my own in the world and had no friends – no one I felt comfortable phoning to go to lunch or a movie with, and there was no one who thought or wanted to call me.

No one who knows me now believes it, but I didn't know how to make friends in those days. I didn't know how to talk to people and was too terrified of rejection to be the first to speak.

That left a lot of long, lonely evenings and weekends sometimes with more weeping that I care to recall. You can read only so many books.

In old age, loneliness creeps in for many when a spouse or a close friend dies, when old friends move away, when grown children live across the country or even the world. It is, unfortunately, in the nature of growing old, of life itself, that our social circles shrink.

Increasing numbers of new studies are revealing that loneliness is a major health risk to elders having twice the impact on early death as obesity. According to a study from the University of Chicago reported in Science Daily:

”Feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person's chances of premature death by 14 percent...The research shows that the impact of loneliness on premature death is nearly as strong as the impact of disadvantaged socioeconomic status, which they found increases the chances of dying early by 19 percent.”

Combine that information with the results of another study reported in Science Daily two months ago - this one from the University of Florida about the health effects of perceived discrimination (emphasis added):

"'We know how harmful discrimination based race and sex can be, so we were surprised that perceived discrimination based on more malleable characteristics like age and weight had a more pervasive effect on health than discrimination based on these more fixed characteristics,' Sutin said.

“The one exception was loneliness.

“Loneliness was the most widespread health consequence of discrimination among older adults.
Discrimination based on every characteristic assessed in Sutin's study was associated with greater feelings of loneliness.

“According to previous studies, the effects of chronic loneliness are severe: increased risk for unhealthy behaviors, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular risk factors and suicide.”

However or wherever it originates, loneliness in old age is being proven again and again a killer. Not to mention that it feels awful.

At this blog, we have discussed at length over many years how the internet and blogging create new friendships and I don't want to dismiss those. About half the people I hold most dear these days I've met through blogging.

Even so, humans have an inborn need for personal contact; there is something so life-giving about sitting across a room or table from another, touching a hand as you talk perhaps and, depending on what you are saying, seeing the twinkle - or sadness – in the other person's eye.

Since these loneliness studies began appearing, I've been putting a lot of thought to what we, old people, can do about it for others and ourselves.

Reaching out when we sense someone we've met needs a friend is one way. And there is a lot we can do to help ourselves: volunteering, faith groups, if that is your choice, local clubs, senior centers, exercise classes, library groups – there are all kinds of places where people with like interests come together.

Undoubtedly some of the people doing those things are looking for friends too.

It took a long time but I finally learned how to speak with people I've not been formally introduced to and anyway, so what if I'm rejected. It probably won't happen next time.

If getting out of the house is difficult, the growing Village Movement (and some other local organizations) have what are called “friendly visits” - volunteers who go to people's homes to talk, play games, watch movies or just sit and be together. Friendships flower from these too.

While I was staying with her and her husband in New York, Wendl Kornfeld told me how she has dealt with having family not only spread over ten states but, sometimes, knowing they just can't or won't be there for her.

”I have redefined family,” said Wendl, “as those people who are literally nearby, who care about me, and of whom I have a reasonable expectation of support and help based on proximity and affection. Of course, it is my great privilege and pleasure to reciprocate.”

In other words or, rather, those of Stephen Stills, love the ones you're with. It's great advice for all of us in our old age.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: Now That I'm Old


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

Comments

"Love the ones you are with" Yes! Tremendous practical wisdom!

Loneliness is something I've dealt with since my husband died and I've been proactive with joining senior center activities, the Red Hat Society and volunteering. BUT I still miss having that one person I can talk to about anything and everything. It takes so much time to build true trust in a friendship---at least for me---that I am constantly feeling like I don't have enough time left on earth to make really good friends. Blogging does help and I'm active in this community and I feel a connection with other bloggers BUT a monitor can't give hugs or water your plants if you're in the hospital. Woo is me. Time for a second cup of coffee. LOL

I understand, Jean, about feeling there isn't enough time now to make really good friends. But I'm learning that I am probably wrong.

After four years in Oregon, there are two or three people I've come to care about deeply and I think they feel the same.

There isn't the history of decades but the connections grow and become stronger as we spend time together.

And like Wendl's redefinition of family, I think we can redefine what a it takes to become friends. Maybe it doesn't take so long as I thought to feel close to someone and trust them.

I have been thinking how good it would be for kids, too, if they connected with elders. So many live far away from grandparents, so that elders become an intermittent inconvenience. My kids went to a Catholic high school - I'm an atheist, but it's a great school - and had the choice to be an elderly nun's "buddy" their junior year. Seemed like a good thing, to me, for all.

I wouldn't have any idea what you're talking about except for my first job, many years ago. I moved to a strange town, and went without friends for so long it was making me crazy--and miserable. I also had what I called "skin hunger." I didn't even have a dog or cat. Because of that experience, I realize what a powerful thing loneliness is.

I hope you're right about predefining what it takes to become friends, Ronni. I suspect you are. I keep casting my line in the water and have had a few nibbles.

As I read this post I thought back of times I may have been lonely. Yes, there were some days during my lifetime when I was lonely, but they never lasted more than a day. Thant's strange, because when I grew up I was never alone and I went from my parent's house to my marriage. During the first years of my marriage we moved to a ranch and didn't have a telephone. I think that's the first time I experienced loneliness, but it didn't last long.

You would expect me to be lonely now because I live alone, my friends are still working or busy and I can go an entire week without speaking to a single live person. I do not have a relative in the entire state and my children are working and can't come visit very often. Now I can no longer visit them so perhaps will become lonely.

I guess I learned early in life that I was on my own and I became very good at adapting to whatever situation life dealt me.

I have tried to fill my days with activities and found that if you remain busy doing things you enjoy you don't have time to feel lonely. I hope that can remain busy until I depart this live.

I find I'm envious of people who make friends easily and treasure the dwindling number of friends with whom I've a shared history which makes it so much easier and so very comfortable. Have joined an exercise group where I now live and do enjoy the people there due to the shared interest. 'Love the ones you're with' is great. Thanks for including it today.

I greatly miss the companionship that my husband provided, but I can't really say that I feel lonely. That was not always true. I can understand how and why loneliness would have a detrimental effect on health.

Human touch has got to be one the most important things as we age and the most difficult unless you have close friends and family.

Loneliness is why I am an advocate of senior communities and assisted living. Besides having your physical needs taken care of, being surrounded by other people helps you cope with your emotional needs as well, loneliness included. When meeting new people, I have found that touch plays an important part in connecting with other humans. A gentle pat on the back or shoulder completes the connection. I remember reading a study done a Cornell. They found that waitresses who gently touched diners shoulders while taking their orders received more and better tips than those who did not. Like it or not, we a social creatures who thrive on being with our own kind.

Nobody mentions pets. I know it's not the same as human interaction, but they help enormously. Especially for the "skin hunger" June mentions. It feels good to touch another warm, live creature and experience the pleasure of that simple connection.

I think that the expansion of the "Villages" concept might be a lifesaving thing, or at least it might vastly improve quality of life. I've come across a number of people recently who are mostly on their own, in their own houses still, who are having difficulty keeping their homes and yards up on their own. Almost all of them seem to be experiencing some degree of loneliness and worry or anxiety about this. Most seem to have no one around that they feel they can turn to for this, and can't afford to pay for services. I'm trying to figure out how to go about creating a group of people who could share time and simple assistance, not like caregivers, but more like helping friends. Any suggestions?

This is such good advice and necessary as we age. My Dad, who is 97, goes to the senior center for their main meal mid-day. He also attends their outings and has met people to socialize with.

Well, I ran out of time and used too many words in trying to make my comment "perfect". A little pop-up directed me to refresh the page and try again.

The thrust of my point was simply this (and it's not that simple, I find over and over again) : the "burden" of finding happiness for myself rests on me.

It's such hard work to give up old habits ~~ easier to stay home nursing depression and loneliness, but BY GOSH, there are things I can and must make an effort to do and I am determined today that I will do them.

Thanks, Ronni, for a reminder that many of us are in the same boat but there are solutions if we open our eyes to them. Thanks, too, for all the extra insight from those who have posted a comment.

Loneliness--terrible and frightening. BUT it can be managed! Talk--to everyone you meet--especially those 'condescending' youngsters that call you "young Lady"!
Thank them and say "you're looking pretty cute yourself!"
Sometimes it works--it is another human. Get a dog--my remedy for everything. Can't manage a big one? How about a Maltese or a toy poodle? Dogs give more love than anyone can absorb AND people will stop and talk to YOU about the dog. Walks are good for you too. We all place too much value on 'friendship'
there are in any one's lifetime only a very few really true friends and you are very fortunate if you have that. More smiles, more good humor and more courtsy all along the way and life will start to look good.

This is why I would never live in anything but a 55+ community. The center of the community is the lodge (clubhouse) where you can join or start a group, attend activities, or just hang out and say hi. Also, there's always somebody walking, biking, sitting around the pool, or having a meal in the cafe. Our community is mid-range, pricewise, but if I fell on hard times I'd find a 55+ trailer park or low-income senior apartment. I'm an introvert, but I need people. When that existential aloneness hits, living here provides remedies.

Got my volunteer application for the senior center. Having just moved I'm away from familiar neighbors and just beginning to know the new ones. My core of friends has been reshuffled as well, some moving hundreds of miles from here. I'm slow at making friends but I can see this is a good project for me as life just keeps changing, the grandkids are eyeing colleges far away and this will just continue. Volunteer, sign up, can't garden, or paint, then stuff envelopes, answer phones, work in the gift shop in the hospital. Join Audubon. Be an usher at your local theater. These are some of the things on my list.

The loneliest time in my life was when I was a young nun teaching in Seattle and briefly in Walla Walla. Although I had good friends in my community, I longed for more.

Sunday afternoons were the worst. No matter where I would go, I saw couples with kids, and I wanted to be part of my own family. So I left!

My blog friends have made a tremendous difference in my life since retiring more than four years ago and relocating more than 2000 miles away from travel.

Good points all Ronni, and you are so right on that the solutions are different for all of us. I did my part by liking and sharing on FB because while I know you do not use it, a vast circle of my friends and tribe use it all over the world. In this small way I enlarge the universe of people that are exposed to these useful truths.

Six months ago I moved South, 1500 miles from my kids and long-time friends, with a fair amount of trepidation. But, surprise, it's going fine. I've joined a church, a writers' group, and use FaceBook more than I ever imagined I would. I miss my husband, but for the last years of his life he had Alzheimer's, and I surely don't miss that.
Another way i've found to stay engaged and happy is to do what my mother did: strike up conversations with everyone, from waitresses to deliverymen. It will enrich their lives too.

Very interesting that this same topic was brought up and roundly discussed at Carolyn Hax's advice column today at the Washington Post. I think the only reason younger people don't talk about this problem is because they're working, so see more people every day. It's a universal, human issue.

Needed this post.
After a busy life I retreated
to the woods and nature.
Stay busy, children busy, grandchildren busy and everyone checks in from time to time. Miss dear old friends no longer on this earth. I am not a joiner at this time so busy in the past and friendly to all I come in contact with, computer and writing my blog now 5 years a late in life joy.
Wondering a lot do I need to be in a senior setting. Just do not know..

I think we all get rusty in the friendship-making dance.

More and more people don't need to have real conversations any more with all their electronic communications. I think many have forgotten how and that is a critical tool in making new friendships.

You can't press too hard to encourage people include you in their circle...and it's easier for them not to until they need to replace someone who moves or dies.

Lavish money on other people's causes and you'll have more insincere friends than you can count.

Being able to read this blog always makes me feel less alone. I am still working (one more school year!) and will miss the the daily gossip & keeping up with the latest political machinations of the administration. But I am the the oldest staff member in all of the school buildings that I serve; whether I like it or not, that sets me apart.
However, the boomerang generation has returned to my tiny house in the form of my son and daughter-in-law, who is expecting. It is killing me financially, but I have to admit I enjoy having people around again!

My mom lives in an assisted living center. She is a retired nurse and does not seem to "connect" with other residents. She is much more interested in the staff...she always had much younger friends, and I think she does not feel "elderly" as she sees the residents But she does nothing. No friends there. No activities that she joins. No connections there. I want her to have a full life. But she is not interested in any of those things, and finds reasons they would not work out when I make suggestions. So is she lonely, or just a person who prefers to e alone? I am not sure.

I'm not an expert on this, but I'll bet one of you may be.

I think of "lonely" as the perceived absence of relationships/friendships you would like to have and you (mistakenly) feel everyone else has.

I think of "alone" as coping quite well with what life brings with little perceived as lacking.

Lonliness is the human condition because we long for significance and of course I think we long for God. We are able to erase lonliness through much of our lives, but as we age significantly, that becomes harder to do, not because there is "something wrong" with us, but because life's circumstances make it harder. I bet part of that unhealthy response to lonliness is because we somehow think we are "alone" in our having to experience lonliness. Nope, we are not the only ones. When I am lonely, I pray for the lonely of the world. When I am ill I pray for the sick. When I am struggling with finances I pray for the poor. and when I am having a great time, I tend to forget to pray! Go figure.

Loneliness is certainly one of the hardest things to deal with. I think it's especially hard when circumstances feel out of your control and you want so badly for things to change. In terms of feeling disconnected from family thousands of miles away, thanks to technology it's still possible to feel close to them and engaged. Tools such as Skype, Family Leaf, and story capturing apps like StoryCall allow these connections to thrive. You can still share stories, you can still engage, and (despite distance) you're family is still right there for you.

I've always been a loner, even as a kid I never had any close friends. That's just the nature of an introvert, one of its many advantages is that you are quite happy on your own, no depression, no nothing. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely.

I know in my area they are trying to do some senior health program where they somehow think people like me would need company in our old age or we will pine away and die. There is nothing further from the truth.

I full time in an RV which takes me away from family and friends and forces me to find new ways to get involved with others. Otherwise, I would probably become lonely. One of the best things I did here in Oregon was go online and join a golf group at Meetup.com. Now, while I am here in the area, I have others to play golf with. There are Meet Up groups in most cities that bring people together with similar interests. Also, if I feel alone, I will take a walk in the RV park I am staying at. Usually, there is someone else either walking or sitting outside who also is eager to visit. I love my old friends I've know for years but I find meeting new people keeps life very interesting because each person brings something new to my life. Everyone has a story! I treasure my "alone" time as well and so far I have not experienced loneliness.

I just retired from working in the mental health field with dementia/mental illness clients in August. I moved here from New York City 28 years ago. While the years have gone by, I have made friends along the way. My kids are grown, But I still miss my roots from NY city and my friends and family. I often have felt guilty about this; never felt like I have adjusted, I do have some activities I keep busy with , but I think I have always been a New York person at heart. Oregon is beautiful and enjoy its lovely country side, ocean and mountains,I know if I accepted the fact that I live here, I would have been more sociable and met more people, but so be it, thanks for listening.

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