A friend who lives on the east coast mentioned to me last week that his wife, at an age when they are both coasting toward retirement, says she feels more and more like being a homebody these days.
Me too. Even in childhood, I had no trouble being with myself but in the years since I retired in 2004, I have gradually become more appreciative of my own company, to even crave it when life sometimes feels too busy.
This does not mean I don't want to be with other people. I just seem to want a bit less of it these days, of shorter duration and to give myself more time between each encounter.
Scheduling can get tricky because my weekly visit to the farmers market during the season seems to count as visiting time for me as do long telephone conversations – an hour or two each – that I regularly have with friends who live far away.
Not often but now and then, up to three days can go by when, not counting a short greeting with a neighbor at the mail box, I don't see or speak to anyone. And that doesn't bother me.
But it sure does bother people whose jobs are in the field of ageing. Old people are lonely they tell us. Their social circles dwindle as they age leading to more time alone and the isolation that results can be deadly:
”Isolation has been associated with people developing more chronic illnesses and facing a higher risk of death. Hypertension, less physical activity, worse mobility and increased depression have been tied to loneliness and isolation,” reported U.S. News & World Report last year.
“Not too surprisingly, mental abilities can suffer as a person's world shrinks. Cognitive decline and dementia may become more likely with isolation.”
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death.”
Some have called elder loneliness in the U.S. and in the U.K. an “epidemic” but how many old people are lonely is highly questionable. An AARP Foundation study [pdf] published in 2012, was unable to quantify it:
”...current estimates indicate that isolation could impact up to 17% of Americans aged 50+.”
What is not hard to know is that wherever the health of old people is being discussed, loneliness and isolation are hot topics and the remedies suggested are always the same:
Take a class
Join a club
Move to a retirement community
Get a pet
(ASIDE: You can always tell when someone who is not old yet is writing about being old. It doesn't occur to them, for example, that for many elders, a pet might be too expensive, too difficult to care for or that concern it would outlive you and maybe not have a new home is too hard to contemplate.)
It is not unreasonable to assume that some people who are lonely don't want to admit it to people they know and we should all try to be sensitive to that with those we know, to do what we can to help.
But what I don't like is the sense conveyed by the ageing media that all elders are at “risk” for isolation and loneliness. Some of us, probably more than those experts realize, find increasing comfort in being with ourselves as we grow older, and being alone is not synonymous with loneliness.
This idea has come up in the past at this blog and a lot of us are on the same page with it as shown on Monday's post about Jung's seven tasks of ageing.
“I have learnt to enjoy my own company much more than I ever did before,” wrote Chillin.
“Solitude is not a sin--far from it. And it's good to use it for writing, including writing remembrances or memoir. Toward the end of life I think it's natural to experience occasional loneliness. We can survive it!” said Barbara Young.
“I'm 69 this year and I'm already tired of AARP reminding me to stay connected, wear high heels, get another job and stay busy! I was very very busy, employed, and connected for 55 years and now I'm going to embrace my essential introvert and explore these tasks in depth,” wrote Susan.
“I love to park my car at the pier, turn on some satellite music, eat my lunch, contemplate life and write. It's peaceful,” said doctafil.
It is a good thing in old age, I believe, to spend some time with me, myself and I. In that regard, here is a lovely little poem I found on the internet some time ago titled The Secret Place by Dennis Lee.
I suspect it was written for children but you and I are old enough to know that doesn't matter.
There's a place I go, inside myself,
Where nobody else can be,
And none of my friends can tell it's there -
Nobody knows but me.
It's hard to explain the way it feels,
Or even where I go.
It isn't a place in time or space,
But once I'm there, I know.
It's tiny, it's shiny, it can't be seen,
But it's big as the sky at night.
I try to explain and it hurts my brain,
But once I'm there, it's right.
There's a place I know inside myself,
And it's neither big nor small,
And whenever I go, it feels as though
I never left at all.