Just last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May created a new government position: Minister for Loneliness.
According to a 2017 report, more than 9 million people in Britain often or always feel lonely. May, quoted in The New York Times, said in announcing the new ministry,
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
(More about how the Ministry will tackle the problem is reported at gov.uk.)
It's not just a British problem. According to a U.S. study of 218 studies, loneliness is not only a social problem, it is harmful to our health:
"They discovered that lonely people had a 50 per cent increased risk of early death, compared to those with good social connections. In contrast, obesity raises the chance of dying before the age of 70 by around 30 per cent,” as reported in The Telegraph.
As the American Psychological Association [APA] reported on the same study:
”Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s Loneliness Study...
“'These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,' said [researcher Julianne] Holt-Lunstad.”
I do not doubt for a moment that there are millions of old people who are lonely but I think there is something else at work on this topic that the researchers won't understand until they are old: that many old people voluntarily withdraw from social life to greater or smaller degrees as the years pile up.
I can't prove that and I haven't seen a single study that addresses it, let alone agrees. But a growing body of anecdotal evidence, just in my own small circle, seem to indicate something the loneliness researchers don't know.
A reader named Albert Williams left this note on a TGB post about making friends in old age. It's a bit lengthy but worth it:
”Whew! I'm glad I found this site,” wrote Williams. “I was beginning to think that I was the only person with such problems, and that, perhaps, there was something wrong with me.
“However, after a bit of introspection, I realize that this is not completely true. (Completely? Try old, ugly, curmudgeonly, short-tempered, cynical, and a few more applicable adjectives...)
“Time has, indeed, taken its toll. I am now an old man. Most of my life-long friends are gone. I've never had any kids; I've outlived two wives; and almost all of my family on both sides have already died.
“I find it very easy to make new acquaintances, but these seem to never develop into the deep, trusting, abiding friendships I had when I was young. Loneliness, apparently, has become a permanent part of my remaining days, and my best friends nowadays are my dogs and my computer.”
In addition, a long-time internet/blog friend, Cowtown Patty, recently wrote in an email:
”Found that as I age, while I enjoy people to a degree, I am happier when I am at our 'farm' out puttering in the 'garden' or in the house somewhere alone. Even Kent, who is the easiest person in the world to get along with, can be an irritating intruder sometimes.
“Do you think we 'cocoon' as we age? Protection? Preparing? Insulating ourselves from a world grown too noisy?”
That may be true for me. Although I have always seemed to need a lot more alone time that many people I know, in recent years I've purposely chosen fewer social engagements in exhange for time alone (reduced energy may be a contibutor too).
It's not that I don't like people or don't enjoy time with them. I do. But as I follow my innate nature these days, I am eager for less of that than during most of my adult life and as far as I can tell, the biggest change that would bear upon the desire for fewer social engagements is that I've grown older.
Which doesn't sound too far off from Patty's “cocooning” idea – perhaps even subconsciously, we begin separating ourselves from a world we know we will be leaving much sooner than people who are younger than we are.There is an interesting entry at the Wikipedia Old Age page on this subject (emphasis added):
”Johnson and Barer did a pioneering study of Life Beyond 85 Years by interviews over a six-year period. In talking with 85+ year olds, they found some popular conceptions about old age to be erroneous.
“Such erroneous conceptions include (1) people in old age have at least one family member for support, (2) old age well-being requires social activity, and (3) 'successful adaptation' to age-related changes demands a continuity of self-concept.
“In their interviews, Johnson and Barer found that 24% of the 85+ had no face-to-face family relationships; many have outlived their families. Second, that contrary to popular notions, the interviews revealed that the reduced activity and socializing of the over 85s does not harm their well-being; they 'welcome increased detachment.”
The researchers spoke only with people 85 and older. I strongly suspect that if they talked with 60- and 70-somethings, the trend would be there already.
Certainly there are millions of old people yearning to make connections with others who are having trouble doing that.
But as with all things related to elders, I don't believe you can bundle all of us into one handy explanation for any issue and it could be that what looks like loneliness to younger researchers is a personal choice some elders make.
What do you think?