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GRAY MATTERS: Medicare for All

Elders and Loneliness

category_bug_journal2.gif Recently, AARP released a survey titled Loneliness among Older Adults [pdf] which was conducted during the summer.

The age group included, beginning at 45, is problematic for me. I believe loneliness among people in the middle of their career years have different sources of loneliness from those approaching retirement or who are already there. But that's what we are stuck with and there are some interesting findings.

The survey included 4,610 U.S. residents who participated online. Those who needed it were provided with hardware and internet access. Overall, 35 percent (1,614) reported feeling lonely to various degrees which is an increase from 20 percent, says AARP, over a similar survey 10 years ago.

(The charts below are stolen from the AARP report available here.)

• Loneliness decreased significantly with age. 43 percent of the youngest age group (45-49) reported loneliness compared to 25 percent of the oldest group (70-plus)


Retired respondents - 37 percent - were less likely to feel lonely that those still working - 30 percent. (no graph)

Relocation makes a difference. 45 percent of those who relocated within the past year felt lonely compared to 31 percent who had been in their home for at least 20 years.


Marital status makes a difference. 29 percent of married people felt lonely compared to the highest incidence of loneliness – 51 percent among the never married.


Religious participation made a big difference. 44 percent of those who never attend religious service reported loneliness compared to 30 percent of those who attend once a month or more.


• 30 percent of those who report 11 or more hours a week spent on hobbies report loneliness compared with 51 percent who have no hobby.


• Overall health is a strong predictor. 25 percent of those who described their health as excellent and 24 percent of those with very good health reported loneliness versus 55 percent of those whose health was poor.


These are a sampling; many other life conditions were surveyed which you can see here [pdf]. (Don't be daunted by the 102 pages; everything after page 25 is appendices.)

It has been well known for many years that loneliness is a health hazard. Varieties of other studies strongly suggest that loneliness in elders is associated with a compromised immune system, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, sleep disorders, dementia, depression and more.

What surprised me in this survey is that loneliness apparently decreases with age and that retired people were somewhat less likely to be lonely that those still working. This survey reported only data, not reasons, but I wonder if, as we gain age and experience, we become more adept at managing loneliness and taking steps to alleviate it.

The most painfully lonely period in my life was childhood. I was terribly shy, didn't how to start conversations with classmates and was teased unmercifully at school for being smart. Books became my friends.

Since then, periods of loneliness have been fleeting and, if I recall correctly, took care of themselves without much effort on my part. An example: when I left my husband, all but one or two of our friends took sides with him, probably because he was a well-known radio star. But when I got back to work (I had been his producer), it wasn't long before I had a robust social life and soon, real friends.

The section of the report on internet usage (begins on page 19) doesn't reveal much difference in the incidence of loneliness and frequency of use of social media, and doesn't mention blogging at all.

But I know for myself, with my two moves to new cities in recent years, this blog with the online friends I've made as a result of it, is a formidable tool for social interaction.

I am curious about your experience with loneliness through the years.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Friko: Kaffedlatsch


As I am contemplating retirement from full-time work (and having a workplace for social connections), I was happy to read the findings about retirement vs. working.

I've always considered myself somewhat of a loner -- in that I enjoy a limited amount of time with people, but find my happiest time being solitary. Working was stressful due to that aspect of myself; don't miss it. I do enjoy my sisters' company, especially the one I'm closest to in age and likes/dislikes.

While I find these studies interesting, they seem to leave out people like myself who find an abundantly full life without being social.

Interesting! Thanks for sharing. I imagine people who are older in this survey have learned to live with their loneliness. I found loneliness worse during the period of my life when my kids were no longer around as much and were starting their own families, but one does get used to loneliness and learn to live with it, don't you think?

I, too, was interested to read the statistics about retirement. I'm still working full time at age 62 and have no plans to retire any time soon. I like my work--and I like the collegiality. Although I have a nice network of non-work friends, as someone who lives alone and is a bit of an introvert, I've imagined that some degree of loneliness would be one of the challenges of retirement. It would be interesting to hear more analysis of the data.

I am alone a lot at this time of my life. I like this. A busy lifetime with career, marriage, children, divorce, and ongoing busyness. In my 70's I could not have survived at that pace. Coming home and building a cottage by the woods. Time for reading, writing, gardening, yoga, meditating and just being and finding out who I really am - is wonderful. My writing online and the constant interaction with many friends - it has brought into my life - the last 3 years has kept me from being "lonely".

I'm one with a hobby that keeps me busy--community theatre. It helps a lot! As well, my daughter and grandson have moved in with me.

However, I do miss having a Significant Other. There are times when I feel quite sorry for myself because it has been several years since I've been kissed. That's the one I need to get over!

I think a lot of how a person feels about this is whether they are extroverts or introverts. An introvert doesn't need that much interaction with others to feel good but an extrovert who is not getting what they need will feel loneliness faster. I am an introvert and although I like people, am not shy, and can interact in a large group, I don't feel the need for it and am selective about where I do that to save solitary time for myself. Maybe because of being an introvert, I rarely feel lonely and when I do, I can usually trace it to a relationship that isn't working as well as I would wish or something else going wrong with me.

What I have to watch is that I don't let myself get too isolated as intro- or extrovert, we do all need people in our lives. For me though that would be several deep friendships rather than a lot of casual ones.

I have vivid memories of when I was really lonely. My family of origin moved constantly until until I was 16, never quite fit in anywhere. I attended 14 schools by graduation. I was shy but resilient. I learned to quietly fit in, overly adaptive maybe but I was a good student so I loved school. Five years in college was a record for me. Right after graduation from college I was very lonely, new job, first apartment, I'd lived at home in my noisey family until then. My longtime boy friend had moved to another city to work for the summer.

The second time was 1971, at home with my new baby and getting my sea legs as a new parent. My family had moved to Oregon, and several of our friends had moved to find jobs, money was tight and the economy was bad. That was in 1971 when someone put the billboard up where we lived, Seattle, asking the "last person here to turn out the lights." My then husband had moved to 3rd shift to hang onto his job. I was 30.

The next time was at 50, I'd worked since the kids were small, but was divorced, both kids were in college, I'd changed jobs in my company as the ex and his new friend and I all worked in the same office. That was probably a low, or lonely high if you will.

After a couple of health problems, I decided to sell my house, took an early retirement (it came with free health insurance, those were the days) and moved near to my youngest son and his family (six little girls now). My oldest son got laid off a couple of years later and followed. I worked and made friends that I kept after I retired for real. Plus my daughter-in-law's large family took me to heart and hearth. In a new town family is still mandatory for me. If I moved again it would probably be to Portland, OR where I have 3 sisters and friends. It still takes me a lot of time to make new friends, new kid on the block syndrome. Still I keep in touch digitally with friends including my first husband. Small towns,I find, you do see people often and they are nice but seem to go back to the friends they've had all their lives. I do enjoy time by myself, love to read, talk care of grandgirls twice a week. I walk, so some art, volunteer off and on. I have my eye on the local theater group, I used to do makeup and paint scenery in another life.

Speaking of another life, my husband has moved out, ejected more like. We are divorcing so there is a space in my life but since the space is the absence of sturm and drang, I am not anxious to fill it with someone else. I miss being able to say "did you see..." but I am not unhappy. And then there's my online friends. Love getting to know you.

I've moved around a lot in my life, I generally found it took 2 years in a new place to develop a social life and make good friends (I am single). My last couple of post-retirement moves have been easier, the 2 years shortened to 1 and a bit.

I found joining a church or other religious organization was huge, regardless of whether I actually believed in that particular religion. Instant friends and social life. Sounds cynical I know, but it did take a bit of effort to find churches that didn't mind my non-belief (and I wasn't in-your-face about it, just your average low-key non-believer).

I have developed hobbies for the sole purpose of meeting people, and in the process learned something new.

Loneliness was hardest to bear when I was working, I just didn't have enough spare time to do something about it and I generally did not find good friends or a social life at work. It's much easier now.

Overall this report doesn't surprise me, it pretty much matches my personal experience so far. I am 62.

My one quibble with this report is the lumping together of everyone over 70 (70+); I would like to have seen a breakdown of elders in that range. Do elders in their 80s and 90s experience more loneliness as their friends and spouses pass on?

You are inspired your readers this morning. Normally I am one of the first to note, but not today.

I had a truly awful childhood, my time in the military was just as bad, and my experiences as an adult were not the norm....lonely years all of them till the 1960's. I built an extended family during those years, and most stuck with me through the worst of times.

Annie, I too was wondering about the lumping together of everyone over 70 also. I have regular contact with a pair of sisters in their mid to late 80's and I hear the older one missing her friends who have died (as did my Dad in his 80's. She's no longer confident to drive anywhere but to the doctor or grocery, she was a great car traveler. The younger one lives in a little house in a very nice retirement facility but is not interested in all the "old" people in the place. I can't help but think being confined to your home with health issues or lack of transportation, or worse in a nursing home could be very lonely for many elders. It's something I fear when I think about it and I'm 68.

My worst experience was just prior to and during menopause. It may have been hormonal changes in combination with other situations. Fortunately, I was working with a couple of women who were already at post-menopause. It helped to hear about it from someone who has already been there.

As I have grown older, I accept more things as part of the ebb and flow of life. Reading about these similar life experiences from other people(on-line)is a big help towards coping.

I also experienced extreme loneliness during my youth, right up to and including high school. I was shy, awkward, was also teased unmercifully, and at the same time shunned. Books were my friends and escape, not a bad thing since reading and learning are crucial life skills. I also learned how to be comfortable alone with myself, and I realized early on that the only one I could for sure count on was me. Good life lessons. Once I got to college I started making friends among the other nerds, got over the shyness, found my feet in the world, but I've remained a contented introvert. I've long since discovered that I was far from alone in my experience, it just felt like it at the time. My adult life, including my elder years, has been a vast improvement over my youth. Life changes occasionally left me feeling lonely, but it didn't last. I share your experience of breaking up with a guy, only to discover that our friends were actually his friends. Humph. Well, I moved on, as did you.

It does seem surprising that the working middle-aged should see themselves (on average) as more lonely than those who are older and retired. Hmm. Perhaps over our lives we've learned to cope, be more accepting, be happier with ourselves. The overall message appears to be that folk who have absorbing interests don't feel lonely, at least not often. And I agree that being alone doesn't equate to lonely. Solitude is actually necessary for any creative and/or contemplative activity.

It concerns me too that all old age is lumped in the 70+ column. At 63 and now happily retired, I often wonder (at times fear) what later life might bring, when physical limitations and the death of contemporaries could leave me isolated. Even an introvert needs some social contact. I hold out hope for technological advances such as the internet, bringing blogs such as this one.

I had to think about this because at first I could not remember ever being lonely. I know I must have been but I grew up in the midst of a busy household and left it only to get married so I was never really alone until my husband died and the children were far away. I think I was lonely then but I adapted and am only lonely now when something stressful happens and I have no one to talk to about it. Thank God for my blogging friends because that's when I turn to them.

I do miss having someone around when I am sick. That's the only time I hate being alone. It would be so nice to have someone bring me a cup of soup then and pamper me. I suppose you might call that loneliness.

There is a huge hole in my heart right now. Our sweetheart senior cat died the same evening the miners were rescued.

I can't stop crying.

We see her everywhere in the house and miss her terribly.

I am no good with goodbyes.

A senior friend up the street invited me to her church last February, when I was worried about my mom living on her own in a big house.

There, I met many other strong, smart senior widows from my area. It was a good thing to get involved in the community, to discover there is an army of senior women from the greatest generation, holding strong on their own in houses they are not ready to sell.

I got involved, helping the members of that church fight and win a David & Goliath battle to have an apartment for seniors built and attached to the church.

Loneliness comes and goes.

I work hard to walk through difficult, lonely times, by reading motivational books, forcing my butt to try different things.

My husband and I just started volunteering one afternoon a week at a food bank.

The people who walked in the door to get food could be any one of us.

One man said he used to be a drug and alcohol counselor until his back quit on him.

He went on disability, which pays peanuts. But he was still smiling, as he lives in a co-op apartment, paying what he can afford.

I helped the guy take his bags of food outside and pack them in his old car.

He said he was lonely in his co-op. He had a few friends who nagged him to go out on the weekends. He collected bottles, jars with lids, stuff that can be recycled.

I told him about my cat.

He had a huge, beautiful cat. A friend of his got breast cancer, had to have one breast removed. The man saw that she was becoming severely depressed, so he offered her his cat.

She took the cat, bought it toys, loves it. The woman is way happy now that she has the cat, her friends.

Loneliness is an important topic.

It's pouring rain, leaves are falling.

Mom and I had breakfast today. We talked about all the cats we have loved.

Thanks for the space, Ronni.

Doctafil - great great comment - much emotion in those sentences. I am sorry for the loss of your very close animal companion.

I have never been good at being alone, except for a few years of childhood when my parents owned a small town cafe. We lived in the small apt behind the cafe, on a busy highway. My friends during those 2 years were make believe - I played up the hill in the cemetery and knew that place by heart. Had my favorite graves I would go visit and "talk" to.

(Especially connected to the headstones that had real photos embedded into the marble).

Once reaching adulthood, I discovered I didn't like doing things alone - made me feel...I dunno...vunerable?

I don't often linger long outside that comfort zone, which doesn't bode well for my later elder years.

I was lonely until the 90's when something happened. It was like I went around a corner and bumped into myself. I've been palling around with this find ever since. The development of this relationship comes right at the end of looking to others to complete me, not surprisingly .

Perhaps there is more than one kind of loneliness that we must recognize as humans. There are so many stories related here! And what role do pets play in alleviating loneliness? (Doctafil my heart goes out to you!) I would suspect that loneliness as an adult would be quite different from the loneliness experienced by an elder of 70+ when one is immobilized and possibly marginalized by the culture.

Thank you, Ronni, for opening up the subject and I thank everyone for sharing your stories on this subject. It has given me so very much to think about! How we are accompanied is a good thing to consider and prepare a strategy for as we age, I think.

Great topic. I realize I am lonely only about 5% of the time though I miss sharing conversation at the end of the day. I try not to worry about my health. My dog fills a huge need and even to think of losing her causes me enormous grief. I am a member of a universal support group which fulfils me greatly.
I was lonelier at the end years of my marriage, 20 years ago than I have ever been before or after.

Docatafill, I am so sorry you lost your much-loved cat. I'm very much a cat-person and know how hard it is when they leave us. My husband and I lost two 16+ year-old cats within 14 months several years ago. Our lovely little 13-year old Maine Coon-mix has chronic renal failure. She's stable now, but we know what the future holds. Very sad!

As far as being lonely, like several of you, our school days were the worst. I wouldn't want to be a teenager again for anything! I'm an introvert and had a very difficult time in grades 1-12. (I think today it might actually qualify as bullying). Fortunately, not having much of a social life gave me plenty of time to read and study. As a result I was admitted to and graduated from an excellent college.

At 73 I haven't been lonely for a long time. A lot of that is due to my wonderful spouse of 32 years and a job I enjoy. I have no idea how I would fare if he predeceases me or if I get very very old and can no longer care for myself. Somehow I will persevere for as long as I can because I'll still have cats to care for!

I wonder how many people confuse being alone with loneliness. I was a rural child with no playmates, no near-by friends at high school age, but I took aloneness to be a natural state of of being. I was lonely when married because I expected NOT to be alone -- silly me, why did I marry a GP who was often on call and often unable to go to events with me? After divorce there were many periods of aloneness but not the same kind of loneliness. I am comfortable with my own company and only feel lonely when looking to others to fill spaces in my life.

June, I had the same thought about being alone and loneliness. One can feel so alone in the wrong group, or as you said when looking to others to fill the spaces.

Today Henry Alford (henryalford.com) has posted Elderism #85 about Duke Ellington. He was incredibly busy, enjoyed critical acclaim, was beloved by so many, and yet, “I’m a hotel man,” Ellington said. “I like being alone, you know. I don’t know why.”

As an introvert, I don't recall ever being lonely; although, it stands to reason that I must have experienced a minute or two of it in my 72.5 years. When I lived alone, I reveled in my aloneness. It is hard for me to imagine the loneliness that I know others feel. Something must be missing in my brain.

Ok, I'm an extrovert, 75, married to a loner who hasn't kissed me in years, and have a terrible time with goodbyes.
I had a bad childhood, divorced, remarried. In short I am all of the above.

Old, but not, definitely not lonely! In fact I truly enjoy my alone time.
Perhaps having had a large family and not enough hours in the day, years of not enough hours in the day, contributes to the joy I feel now that I am, with exception of a loner husband, alone.
I am fortunate in that I have traveled, enjoyed a great neighborhood, was a member of large clubs and have amassed many good memories.
Now, finally, it's my turn. To sleep when tired, eat when hungry, read a book from cover to cover, and do laundry at 3AM.
I love having the time to learn about things that interest me. Historic novels, audio version, allows me to research as I listen, and it gives me great pleasure.
Take heart you who are younger than I, it's great to be old!

As an only child, I grew up "alone" ... except for my books. I don't recall ever having a real conversation with my parents or my grandfather, in whose house I spent most of growing up years. And I've been alone many times in my life since then, but I've never been "lonely". Perhaps being raised the way I was resulted in the long run to be a blessing in disguise.

Thanks for all the kind comments about my cat. Appreciated.

Because I moved away from the place I had lived for 30 years and all my friends and contacts to live in this god forsaken northern clime to help out with my mom, I have felt very isolated and friendless. Although Mom died two years ago, I have not been able to return to my beloved place of 30 years as I previously rented cheaply and there are no cheap rents anymore. I can buy a place now but not there..to expensive.

I would never chose to leave my longtime friends even before I actually experienced doing so.

I am an introvert, can amuse myself well. However through the years I "taught" myself to be social and came to love it in the proper for me doses. I sorely miss having in the flesh friends.

I do not like church, which would be a way to meet people up here. Otherwise, once the snow begins, everyone huddles with their long time friends. I stand alone. Books, hobbies, movies in hand.

FYI -- Just received the Nov/Dec 2010 AARP The Magazine. On page 54, there is an article about this topic. It includes a quiz and more information.

Very interesting posts...through the years I have tried to reach out for friends but just do not have the patience for it...Thank God my husband of 47 years is my Best Friend and Companion yet he has his space and I have mine....the hurts from folks who I thought were my friends have caused me to become more into myself. Except when the grandchildren come...I have a nice quiet life with my mate and I just hope we stay healthy and when the time comes pass on together into the next adventure. Oh am I getting maudlin...must be low blood sugar.

The most acute feeling of loneliness I recall occurred after my mother re-wed, then soon after we moved, and ultimately left our town for the country. The only time I saw others my age was at school and initially I was really lonely. Finally, a visit to former classmates one afternoon became a disappointment as I couldn't explain what I was experiencing and they didn't understand. I guess I realized then, in 7th grade, that my happiness depended on me -- that they were more important to me than I was to them. I rarely allowed myself to be in that situation again. Later moves resulted in my being in a similar rural type environment until I went away to college.

I think there is a sense of aloneness for a period of time after any move away from friends and family. I've found it ironic that times when I've wished for solitude there was none and then when I finally had it there was more than I wanted for many reasons.

Solitude, aloneness and loneliness either with or without other significant people present are interesting topics to consider -- how we perceive them, and how they impact our lives.

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