ELDER MUSIC: Nina Simone
A Newly Uncertain Life

Maybe Being a Loner is Good for Your Health

Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing number of academic reports and news features about the dangers – to adults of all ages but especially elders – of loneliness. The problem is repeatedly called an “epidemic.”

Loneliness can cut seven-and-a-half years off your life, they say. It has the same risk to life as diabetes or obesity, say others. Social connections are necessary, they tell us, for cognitive function and a well-regulated immune system.

Last time we discussed loneliness here, in early February, comments revealed that TGB readers almost universally make the important distinction between being lonely and spending time alone, understanding that they are not the same thing.

Nevertheless, this is rarely addressed in the media coverage of the so-called “loneliness epidemic.” Pretty much all fail to acknowledge that alone time is as important to well-being as social time, and the amount of solitude that a given person needs or desires varies widely among us.

Finally, last month, a well-done story at BBC.com took on a discussion of the benefits associated with reclusiveness:

”One key benefit is improved creativity. Gregory Feist, who focuses on the psychology of creativity at California’s San Jose State University, has defined creativity as thinking or activity with two key elements: originality and usefulness...

“Feist’s research on both artists and scientists shows that one of the most prominent features of creative folks is their lesser interest in socialising.”

Susan Cain, founder of Quiet Revolution, a company that promotes quiet and introvert-friendly workplaces tells us that

”...humans are such porous, social beings that when we surround ourselves with others, we automatically take in their opinions and aesthetics. To truly chart our own path or vision, we have to be willing to sequester ourselves, at least for some period of time.”

And unlike those dire predictions of early death to people who are lonely, another study finds that both our mental and physical health may partially depend on spending time without the distractions of having other people around:

”Daydreaming in the absence of such distractions activates the brain’s default-mode network. Among other functions, this network helps to consolidate memory and understand others’ emotions.

“Giving free rein to a wandering mind not only helps with focus in the long term but strengthens your sense of both yourself and others.”

“Strengthens your sense of yourself...”

More than many people I have known, I have always needed extended periods of unstructured time alone. One of the results of my solitude is that I know intimately how my body functions. I am acutely aware of when something is not right and I generally know when it needs attention or can be ignored.

I am convinced that the accumulation of that bodily knowledge over many decades is what gave me the impetus to badger my physician about my too many symptoms that, although mostly minor individually, added up to something more serious.

It took the medical people four months or so to find the pancreatic cancer, but I might not have pushed them as hard if I didn't have such a thorough knowledge of how my body works and I wouldn't have that knowledge without my quiet time.

So maybe, without my solitude, the cancer would not have been found in time for the surgery to be possible. I can't prove that but I pretty much believe it.

Still, I doubt Feist was thinking of cancer diagnoses when he said,

”'...there’s a real danger with people who are never alone.' It’s hard to be introspective, self-aware, and fully relaxed unless you have occasional solitude.”

The BBC.com story, written by Christine Ro, is a good antidote to the media scare-mongering that passes for settled social science on the subject of loneliness.

Of course, there are lonely people who may need help combating it but that should not be confused with the human need for quiet too, and that there is no "right" amount of solitude. Balance and an allowance for individuality is what is called for.


Comments

I really needed this topic today! I struggle with finding a good balance. I know I am alone too much to be healthy according to the experts. But on the other hand, I enjoy my introspective trips through my life and past relationships.

Interesting theory regarding your cancer diagnosis, Ronni.

We live in such a busy world, always "connected" whether it be face-to-face or tech gadgets. As much as I love my family, some days it seems so burdensome to participate and contribute to those relationships. It makes me feel selfish when I purposely "shut my door" and bar entry occasionally.

Wouldn't it be great to grow wings and take flight of the world when you felt the need? Sitting on our deck Saturday at sunset, I watched our feeders busy with various birds coming for their final snack of the day before retreating into the bushes and trees. Cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, woodpeckers, and even a crow came to visit. I remembered the short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings". ( If you haven't discovered Marquez yet, perhaps start with this short story.) When a 50+ hour work/commute week has gotten the best of me, even half an hour or so outside with nature is a tonic.

While I am not the writer Marquez was, I do know that unless I have large blocks of alone time, I cannot compose anything worthwhile. But that same solitude is an oft-times painful exercise in understanding your own humanity; trying to write should come with a warning label, LOL.

I have never truly lived alone, so I cannot say how I would handle the change of lifestyle if it came to be. I like to think I might embrace it.

"It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It seems to me that being more alone in old age is almost like wrinkles...it's just part of growing old. The older I get, the more friends and relatives die or move away to be close to their children. I am one of those who moved. I have struggled with the process of building a new network of relationships other than my children. I no longer have my work or a spouse or a history in the community to help pave the way. In contrast to younger days, I no longer drink alcohol, I am not looking for a new man in my life, and I don't have to suffer fools gladly. Striking up new acquaintances is more difficult for me, and cultivating new friendships of the deep kind is almost out of reach. However, for the first time in my life, because of time spent alone, I have a sense of myself, my own needs, joys, and sorrows. I have learned how to find and pursue what really matters to me at this stage of my life. Much of what matters requires quiet time: gardening, reading, petting my cat, deepening a spiritual connection to life. That is a gift of old age.

I will echo Diane's comment, it describes my outlook on this to a T.

Cowtown Pattie and Dianne are so eloquent on this subject that I hesitate to follow them in my comment. Beautifully said, Ladies.

There are benefits of being alone as well as being social. Personally, I do not think either one contribute as much to our longevity as our genes do. Nature or nurture? Perhaps it is some of each.

I enjoy living alone as I am selfish with my time, but I also enjoy having others around me. I need to add that I tire easily after a time when with others and want to retreat to my solitude.

This is a great topic because the studies on loneliness do not seem to take into consideration that for being alone for some it is not lonely but necessary. It is where introverts find their strength, center, and balance. At least I do. I must have a certain amount of alone time to be able to go out in the world and be social. During that time I am introspective, sorting out my life and also observing nature. This is my time to connect with my inner self. My dogs give me all the silent companionship I need. Thanks, Ronnie for standing up for those that like to know who resides within! In this crazy world where so much is going on to distract us, looking inward is ever so pleasant and important. You are the best!

One of my favorite writers, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, said the difference between introverts and extroverts is not that only one of them likes people. Both like people and socializing. But extroverts gain energy from socializing and introverts lose energy from it (so they can only take so much of it).

My mother was and I am an introvert. I was very, very upset with her church in MT which contacted me and suggested I put mom in a home because she was staying in her home all the time. Mother would have died in a week in the forced socialization of group living. On the other hand, an aunt of mine who was terribly lonely in her home has blossomed in a group environment.

The problem is do-gooders with preconceived notions about "what seniors need," and who thus don't listen when you tell them anything different.

Here at the A.L.F., it's hard to be alone when you are surrounded by almost 200 people. So any time I have to myself is, not only cherished, but necessary. After all, there is only so much of listening to people talk about their grand kids, their operations, or their aches and pains one can take.

I love what you wrote because it so me now. I live in a "retirement community" where there are people all over so I can eat with folks, talk in the laundry room, etc. That is enough for me cause I am serious about photography and writing and need plenty of alone time. Without hours of quiet time I could not produce what I enjoy doing. Can't possibly create a movie or short story in 20 minute segments. Thank you.

I cherish my solitude and always have. I'm convinced that the quickest way to finish me off would be putting me in a group home.

I was an only child and have always preferred to be alone -- and am never really "lonely".
Am planning to write a book (dedicated to my 4 former husbands) titled, "Never Marry An Only Child ... We Never Really Learned How To Share".

I live on a beautiful coast of our country and for years have explored it, north and south, marveling over the land/seascapes so perfectly displayed.

Oddly enough, I seem to be able to explore it from my own thoughts these days, and when in need of, or wish for, a quiet time, that's my destination. No gasoline or effort required.

Just quiet time.

Another advantage of living in relative isolation is being able to wear the same clothes, and not shower, for several days in a row. Amazing how it cuts down on laundry.

:)

10/10 what Cowtown Pattie and Diane said,

As a lifelong introvert I, like Susan R., would probably die off rather promptly if forced to live in a group environment. I need my own space--even if eventually it's a small apartment or room--and a door that closes!

One upside to being more social is that we probably have more extended family, friends and others who can help when we need it. I do worry sometimes about what will happen if/when I am no longer able to care for myself.

Ditto Diane. I finally figured out who I am. And I am now my very best friend.

That’s a good point — studies of individuals who live alone should allow for the solitude factor for their results to have any real meaning. Being around other people just for socialization can be a negative to fostering good health, I think, depending on those other people and the activities.

My need for solitude has varied throughout my lifetime. Experiencing alternating circumstances of lots of people around to only a few, sometimes composed of either adults or contemporaries, beginning when I was young has provided much opportunity to learn to adapt to being with others or alone. Then, if I was alone, but might have preferred being with others, learning how to pleasantly occupy my time, has paid dividends through life. Feeling the sometimes elusive “happiness” is partly based on our knowing ourselves well emough to determine and honor such needs I think.

As an elder, there can be an occasional loneliness associated with missing the intimacy shared with significant others/spouses, long time friends, relatives who have departed this earth — losses contributing to one of the less pleasant aspects of aging. New relationships often aren’t as fulfilling as that of older ones. I’ve discovered that the older I become the less interested I am in expending time or energy in developing close personal relationships, though still prefer few to a more shallow focus on many.

Being alone and being social are both beneficial for me. A balance is good. At this point in my life (living with a sister, with siblings close by, community activities, time with children and grandchildren, and with alone time thrown in), I am very satisfied.

ONCE AGAIN, YOU NAILED IT RONNIE!

Solitude is definitely good for my mental and spiritual health, that's a no brainer. I just figured that all this keep- the- old- dodderers -together was triggered by money. All those assisted living places, and other clusters of elderly under one roof, to the benefit of some corporation.
As a culture, we are not very self compassionate, so often we fear meeting who we really are. And though we all have those dark corners, we also have beautiful attributes.
My friends are a pleasure, have helped me through a couple of medical situations, and I care
deeply for them. The caring is enhanced by a good dose of solitude in between.

Interesting thought Salinda Dahl about the money connection. It would be interesting to know the who and why in these articles.

People probably don't even know they have been persuaded into thinking old people are lonely. Remember if you hear someone say something enough times --it becomes truth to many people.

Regarding the health consequences of "loneliness" , I wonder how much of the increase in morbidity and mortality alleged in studies might have more to do with isolation than loneliness.

***To all the TGB folk: isn't it great we have a place to congregate, drink a cup of hot coffee and intelligently muse about all sorts of topics?

I do keep a FB page - mostly to get grandkids' photos and updates. The vacuous conversations on social media platforms are quickly tiresome and seldom thought-provoking.

TGB is the best corner coffee shop. Thanks, Ronni!

you know me so well

I am an introvert. My social needs are different from most people. I can go 5 hours before I need to talk to someone. I took early retirement. That plus the shrinking of my circle of family and friends due to deaths and personal changes meant making new friends. It hasn't been easy. I do volunteer work and take an assortment of classes to keep mentally, physically and emotionally active and to basically get out of the house.

Today, where I live, there are a lot of programs specifically for older people. I remember when I was a teenager seeing the neighborhood library filled with elderly men who seemed to spend their days reading and writing. I remember dad who did not leave the house after mom died.

It has been a busy day so I am late joining the conversation. I do want to tell those people who say they are going to die anyhow so why have a panic button that unless they are much braver than I am. I would have given all I possessed to have had one when I fell the first time and broke my hip. Before I realized I had to get to a phone I sat there wondering how long it takes to die without water. I was in shock at first and must have passed out because when I realized my predicament I was sitting with my back against a cabinet wondering how in the bloody hell I got there. I have had worse pain, but it still wasn't fun when I had to move my body so I could roll over on my stomach and crawl to the other side of the room to get a telephone. From the time I fell until help arrived it had taken me 10 hours to get help.

When I got home from rehab I had a man waiting to install an alarm system so that never happened again. Since then I have become the talk of my fire department for the number of times they have been to my house. Another time I fell and to break my fall I instinctively reached for a heavy coffee table made of Belgian glass and it fell on my arm trapping me. I would not have been able to crawl to a phone that time and was soooo glad I could press the panic button around my neck (with the other hand) and help would arrive.

I do not understand why others have had trouble with them. I have had Alert 1 for years and the only problem I have had was when I accidentally pressed the button and the firemen came and I was surprised to see them. That would not happen with someone who is not hearing impaired because they try to reach you on the phone when you don't answer them asking if you are all right. There is another safety feature that the alarm systems have that I am unable to use. You give them a telephone number for someone nearby to come check on you before they send the paramedics (only if you don't answer).

" I sat there wondering how long it takes to die without water. "

Oh-my-god Darlene, I confess I had never thought about a fall leading to a situation such as you describe. How horrendous. You have changed my mind about emergency alarm systems. Thanks for the wake-up call.

PS
Ronni...

This could be a dumb question, but might it be possible to add Darlene's highly pertinent comment under the post on "Home Monitors for Elders"? It seems to have been filed under the "Maybe Being A Loner is Good..." and I'd hate for others concerned with this subject to miss out on what Darlene had to say.
Thanks for both these great posts, as always.

Everything Katie said that Darlene said, along those lines....

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