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