ELDER MUSIC: The Beatles
How It is to Get Old

Elder Social Needs

It is conventional wisdom that without a rich social life, elders will become lonely and depressed leading to health problems and, sometimes, suicide.

No one who writes about elder quality of life fails to mention the importance of frequent contact with friends and relatives, and there are many studies showing that close connections with others enhance our health.

Dr. Robert N. Butler, who I greatly admire, devotes two chapters in his last book, The Longevity Prescription, to the importance of relationships and social connections.

“Researchers have found,” writes Butler, “that happiness tends to be greater for those with lots of friendships than those with few worries about retirement income.”

I have unquestionably accepted this as truth and have written at length here in the past that as opportunities for social contacts decrease with age, the internet and, in particular, blogs and other social media are life-giving advantages for elder friendship.

Then last week, Gabby Geezer left a comment to the effect that I'd be miserable and lonely without this blog.

After tweaking him for assuming what he can't know, I gave this idea of the need for a rich social life some serious thought because it doesn't seem to apply to me.

Let me first say that about half the people I hold most dear are online friends. And, however it has happened over the years, most others I care for deeply live far away. Now, moving on...

I don't doubt that all the evidence insisting on a rich social life for good health is generally so but such studies are always about averages, not reporting on individual differences. Some of us need a lot of time alone and I am one of those.

As a kid, I was a loner, mostly due to shyness. I got over that and the work I did for many years required a lot of social interaction in the evenings. Too many nights out in a row during the week and I'd often take Saturday and Sunday to be alone, to regroup, to find my internal balance again.

Once, feeling exhausted from too many people for too long, I took two weeks at my country house by myself where there was no phone, no television or radio. I stocked up on food so there would be no reason to drive into town and for those two weeks, I spoke to no one. When it was time to return to the city, I felt like I could use another week of solitude before getting back in the groove of work and social life.

It's always been that way for me and one of the pleasures of retirement is that I'm not required to be with people for long periods every day.

And no, I'm not a misanthrope. I think people are terrific; I just like them in small doses. All my working life, I longed for more time alone. For me, no matter how well I know someone, there is a quality of being “on” when I'm with them that tires me. Or, often, conversation with others has been so interesting that I want to time to absorb what I've heard from them.

There are few things I've learned in life for certain, but one of them is that if I feel or believe something, so do many other people - I can't be alone in liking to be alone.

Certainly there are elders who are lonely who can't or don't know how to change their circumstance and they suffer for that. But I object to the assumption in all the aging literature that to spend more time alone than in social situations is unhealthy either physically or psychologically. Some of us are built differently – and that's okay.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary B Summerlin: Aging Gracefully


Comments

I attended a memorial service for a former neighbor this week; one who had moved to a high-dollar retirement/assisted living complex. While there, I ran into a former work acquaintance to extolled the virtues of living there and said..."Someone has a party every day!"

I like parties as well as anyone, but the thought of having that much social life makes me tired!

Agree totally....big difference between being alone and being lonely....I'm 67, married...pretty large extended family...and still travel by my self and treasure my alone time ..and always have. Actively avoid more "social" interactions...I'm not shy....Love New York City..Miami...because there's lots going on and I don't have to have personal interaction....

Thank you. I always kinda felt that I'm not really doomed to die 'prematurely' just because I am comfortable with my own company, but it's good to know that there are others out there with the same view. Friends are good, and everybody should have a few, but the self shouldn't be avoided, either.


I have always savored my "alone" time. I suppose it sounds strange but I really enjoy my own company. I read and write and watch TV.

That's the best part. If I want to watch "Bridezillas" or "Cheaters"" I can do that without comment from anyone.

When my husband is here we usually watch whatever MSNBC has on at the moment. I like that,too, but I really enjoy my alone time.

I think most writers are comfortable with themselves, alone. It's a solitary life, whether you're working on features, scripts or blogs.
And, why wouldn't that pattern extend beyond a person's working days? You don't turn off your brain just because you retire from a paying gig.

Good work Ronni; you've expressed what I've been thinking about for a long time. At my high-end senior building, I'm considered antisocial because I tend to skip cocktail parties and other events. I'm most comfortable alone, and I sometimes don't even leave my apartment during the weekend. I believe that we all have our own lifestyles, and mine happens to be a solitary--but seldom lonely--one.

I can relate. The expression of always feeling "on" hit it squarely for me. I cannot remember if a former boss was quoting someone else or if this was original, but he said introverts expend (emotional?) energy in interactions with others and have to draw aside and have some solitude to recharge their batteries. Extroverts draw energy from their interactions with other people. That exactly described my need for "quiet" time. It also describes my relationship with my husband. After a busy time of being with groups, we need time just us to "reconnect."

I have quelled much wisdom and information from your blog as a whole, and from you, Ronnie. Thanks for today's comments, in particular. I needed that!

I wrote a blog on this awhile ago because I had come to the same conclusion. Some people need more social contact to be happy and some need less to be happy (age isn't the reason). I made the case that it's a question of whether someone is an introvert or extrovert and added that being an introvert doesn't mean shy. It's a question of where one gets their energy whether from themselves or from external contacts. We are in a society where most are extroverts which pushes that onto the introverts who might manage just fine in a group but get their energy from being by themselves. It's not a right or wrong for either. It's a basic difference.

I know people who cannot tolerate being alone. They are miserable without company. As we age and our world shrinks, this is a real hardship for these people. My husband and I are happiest with the company of ourselves and each other.

Count me in among those who like people but feel exhausted by too much having to be "on." The work I do requires intense engagement; after a bout of it, I have to go away and recharge. I fully expect to age in the same pattern. I AVOID non-stop social interaction as something that will leave me drained.

Great post, and I'm sure the wisdom applies to many older people. I actually define myself on my blog as being a "semi-hermit." In that, I mean I am an introvert, prefer to be alone, but I can interact with others too. Luckily at this time of my life, I am able to have that choice: to be alone when I wish, see others when I wish.

I think the introvert/extrovert definitions apply to most people, and though an extrovert might be miserable alone, being with lots of people constantly would be just as difficult for an introvert.

I have never been more lonely than when in a crowd.

There have been weeks when I seldom hear a human voice and yet I am not lonely. I agree that my blog friends may be the reason for that.

I am just grateful that I enjoy being alone and being able to do what I want withouth having to please someone else.

I love company when they come, but it is not a need. I am content to be alone and really wouldn't want it any other way.

I suspect that when "they" talk about having a good social life, being a party animal isn't really what they mean. Like most of the commenters so far I very much enjoy my alone time, but I recognize that I have friends and family I can relate to positively, I have a few close friends I can share heartfelt feelings with, and people in my life that I can count on when the chips are down. I don't need to be spending all my time with them or engaging in lots of social activities with other folks, it's enough to know that I can if I feel the need to. I think that's a good social life, and I think there are folks out there who don't have those elements in their lives and do feel lonely because of it. I have had times when one or more of those elements simply wasn't there and it was hard.

Introvert or extrovert, as the body ages we have to slow down and spend more time at home. As we have read on this blog before, Jung's seven tasks of old age are needed. These acts of assessment and contemplation are only possible with enough alone time. So the aging of the body conspires to make this possible.

This post is me. I require a lot of time alone. 18 months ago I chose to leave the city and move back to my country property, I post about it almost daily. The computer world for the last 3 years has been good for me.
Social interaction with some of the finest people in the world. It is also a joy to write and download my camera images.

Thoughtful personal post, thanks Ronni. I enjoy other people too, but need time to recharge afterwards. I have a kind of hermity leaning. I also think many who are involved in the arts, writing, fine arts, photo, dancing, any creative endevor really, raising a family, require alone time, thinking time, working time.

After toddlerhood, my kids lived with a somewhat absent mother while I painted and made worked glass with the words from "A Room of One's Own" in my mind. We had a big house then and I set up their own projects and work space. I still take art classes from time to time and notice how those classes split into two, the talkers, and the mostly silent ones, who not surprisingly create more. Its just me alone with my craft, time I thrive on.

Annie's comment hits the nail on the head, I think: it's not about parties but people--people you can count on, people who are there for you. people with whom you can be yourself, people who value you and who you value.

I wonder if anybody's compared the happy solitary type with the happy social type into old age, and measured who lives longer. Which, of course, begs the question: who's measuring "happy"?

No, you are not at all alone. But I find that I shrink without some human interaction. Shrinking is not good for me as then I falter. There has to be a balance with human interaction and alone time. Most of all, I find I too easily lose humor out of my life without other people to poke me. Too easily I fall into pomposity. I think I am just fine until caught dithering and retreating when I should be laughing. We all know that laughter makes life easier. Thanks for the post.

An extrovert for most of my life, it took awhile to accustom myself to my loner husband's retirement, and gradual solitude.
Having become an introvert I find I rather like it.
I take delight in exploring the internet finding exceptional material, that in my social life passed by unnoticed.
Happiness, I read once long ago and cannot recall to whom goes the credit:
"Happiness is having someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to."

Linda S.'s comment sums it up for me. Yup, I'm an extrovert. Always have been, too. I talk to people in lines and at the gym. Holidays alone are unimaginable. BUT my best woman friend, my long-time friend (over 42 years!) is an introvert. Luckily we respect each other's rhythms and enjoy our visits together. We might not do so well traveling together, though.

There's a tremendous bias in American culture in favor or extroverts, so I (a confirmed introvert) take this into account when evaluating "scientific" findings ;)

Seriously, have you noticed how they never find anything good about us? Just sayin'...

Paula...

Yes, I've noticed that too which is, worded a bit differently, what I'm saying in this post today.

Also, I'm a little suspicious of this extrovert/introvert stuff. I'm an extrovert in the sense that it has been decades since my shyness disappeared and like others in these comments, I often speak with strangers when I'm out and about - if that's an attribute of an extrovert.

I don't think being an extrovert precludes liking to spend a lot of time alone too.

Thank you, Ronni. I'm so glad to read that I'm not somewhere south of normal because I don't enjoy other people all that much. My wonderful husband and I are both introverts (we often remark on how fortunate we are to have found each other).

I've been shy most of my life, perhaps partly due to being ridiculed and teased in my youth (as well as to my innate introvertedness--is that a word?). I think what happened to me might be identified as verbal bullying now, but the term didn't exist then, at least in that context. I learned to rely on reading, writing, my cats, work (eventually) and sometimes a couple of friends, but mostly on myself. With few outside distractions, I managed to get into a great college and went on from there.

In declining the invitation to my 50th high school reunion, I wrote a letter for the class memoirs. In it I said that high school is really such an infinitesimal period of time for each of us and life gets so much better later. I also said that I hoped XXX High School was a warmer, more accepting and less intimidating place than it was for me.

I think this conversation would be a bit different if it did not include the comfort and companionship we take in the internet. I feel I have a lot to be thankful for in that regard.

I was born into a solitary life but, frankly, I cannot seriously say whether it is a joy or a curse. I know I am more comfortable alone. I'm still not sure, however, if it has been something I would have chosen for myself as a lifestyle if I hadn't felt forced to construct it from circumstances. I do know that the quality of my encounters with people has become paramount as I've aged. That is what I focus on, irregardless.

PS: I have OFTEN thought, as well, that this culture devalues those who work the still waters.

I am glad I let down my hair, so to speak, and visited the senior center. Now I do yoga and ceramics there, and many of my friends have joined classes on my recommendation. I get a big charge out of doing things with my peers. Especially fun is exchanging information and just plain old gossiping about this and that. A friend of mine got so enthusiastic about ceramics that she is building her own studio, and I will be working with her.
Fun is important. Instead of making a moral obligation out of getting out to meet people, find activities you enjoy and people you enjoy doing them with.
Of course as I have mentioned, the ageism in Hawaii is not nearly as bad as it is on the Mainland, so I remain active in the community without feeling I should not be there participating. I do what I want.
I spent all weekend by myself, reading, for instance, and that was a great pleasure. Now I feel renewed and ready to go to yoga.
Balance. Fun. These are important.

Sometimes I think I would like to live on the mountain across from Heidi's grandfather. (Remember Heidi?) Every Spring I would take him a few loaves of fresh bread and, perhaps he would give me some goat cheese. We would visit a while and I would trek back to my comfortable mountain cottage, perfectly happy to be alone again. (Cottage has high speed internet!)

I have been alone for long period of time all my life, and never felt deprived. In fact, I rather like being alone. Who was it who said, "Thomas Jefferson was never in better company than when he dined alone?" I think that when you are at east in your own company, you don't really mind the "alone times."

Thanks for this post, Ronni, I've written to you before about the need for people with problematic health to be allowed to Be at their own space. We can't all be lithe, slim and "Green Goddesses" as we get older, and it is important not to be made to feel guilty for taking time to be quiet. Every Blessing

I chuckled at Arlene's word picture about Heidi and her grandfather. I think most of who us remember Heidi also remember that Shirley Temple played her on screen.

I've lived alone most of my life save for an 8-year marriage and have been mostly fine because I have a job. I took a year off a dozen years ago in another city and found myself STARVED for conversation, and pity the poor friend who called. I couldn't shut up! How embarrassing. Now, though, there is the Web and all the connections it brings. Today I'm grateful for your blog, Ronni, and the thoughtful conversations it brings. But I think what is most important is actual human touch. We are hard-wired to need that.

Thank you for writing about needing time alone. I too need a lot of time alone. A farm child with no nearby age mates, I never came to rely on others to distract me from reading a book or practicing the piano, listening to the radio, writing in my diary. Being alone did not seem weird and somehow shameful as I think it sometimes does to those who have nearby age mates when they are growing up. I have had only a few friends at a time although as life went on many acquaintances and a busy enough social life. Now in retirement in a new community I am finding both acquaintances and friends and I also have online friends and acquaintances. Still I cherish walks alone, evenings alone, time to read and write.

I welcome the days that I am home, do whatever I want, when I want.

There are people that I know who can not stay home all day, they have to get out of the house even if it's just to buy a newspaper.

I can stay home and be content. If I get together with friends once or twice a week, that's fine with me.

For those who can not "be with themselves" for periods of time, life can be difficult.

" happiness tends to be greater for those with lots of friendships than those with few worries about retirement income.”
Isn't this a
non sequitur?
It's like being asked "Did you take the bus to work or bring your lunch?

I suppose that if someone has lots of friends he doesn't need to worry about retirement income?

Fellow introverts might enjoy this summary of a Psychology Today article called "Revenge of the Introverts": http://bit.ly/dsgLSA

Introverts, for those who might not know, are not necessarily shy and may be high-functioning, i.e., quite capable of participating in or leading a group. We just like (and need) to be alone a lot!

I am not particularly comfortable at parties or other social events. I don't need lots of friends, and I value periods of time alone.

I am happy when other people respect me and when others, particularly those I care most for, show they care about me.

I'm an introvert and quite happy in my own company. I've never had lots of friends. Don't WANT lots of friends. Want the majority of my time to be with myself. Can't imagine that changing just because I'm aging. LOVE the Internet because of the distance it puts between me and others. LOVE email because I can reply when I'm ready. Would hate it if I didn't have email or Internet access.

I agree wholeheartedly, Ronni. I have a core of real friends going back years and we hardly see one another as we're countries apart now.

My partner and I both love our own company and understand the need for solitude within our relationship. We both feel stressed in large gatherings and can only take about 2 hours' worth before we head back for the tranquility of our home. Many see that as anti-social but for those who understand the need for alone-ness, they respect it and feel free to tell us "no, don't visit today" if they have a similar need.

THANK YOU FOR PUTTING IT INTO WORDS FOR ME!... I've sent this post around to many this morning... to some who will relate - as I do!... but also to others who have never stopped asking me WHY? Why did you leave Los Angeles? Why did you move to Montana? Why would you give up that HUGE social life you had? Why do you live alone? Why do you turn down invitations? Why are you self-employed and work at home- don't you want to see other people?... and that's nothing compared to the HOW questions! LOL... anyway, I crave solitude... I did my time with social. My elder social need is to be allowed to be alone and to choose how 'social' looks to me today! Thanks for TIME GOES BY... it's helped me so many times... I've mostly lurked in smug approval of your work... decided today was the day to make a peep!


From Atlantic Unbound:
The habits and needs of a little-understood group

by Jonathan Rauch
Caring for Your Introvert

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200303/rauch

We introverts need to stick together! But in separate rooms. Like you, I am exhausted by social activity and need to recharge by being in my own company. But who says online socializing isn't real socializing? I'll bet future studies will show that those of us with an active virtual life are just as healthy as those with an active tangible life.

Ronni, you have got me where I live. Today is one of those days I treasure--no obligations. I have been troubled by all the talk about how elders need lots of social connections, because, like you, I NEED solitude. I like to have people I love in my life--family, friends, but I don't want them around me all the time, and when I'm with people, I always, always look forward to coming home. The emptiest times in my life have been those in which I was with people all day long. I did have a husband and three children. I loved them. I still do, and I'm glad I don't live with them.
I so get what you mean about how, even in the company of close friends, there's a sense of being ON. I do get lonely, but probably not as much as people who need to be with people all the time!

Amazing how very alike we are, isn't it! I think there is no substitute for solitude. We need it to refuel and refresh. But there are many people who fear solitude and must have people around them all the time. I feel sorry for them. I enjoy being with family and friends, and then I love being home alone! Thanks, Ronni - you found that you were not so different, didn't you?!

I found so many versions of me in your post, Ronni, and in the commenters. I was never alone a day in my life until I was 51! I thought I loved having people around. I had, and still have, more friends than I could possible keep up with. What I learned when I finally got true "alone time," (without having to stay up long after everyone retired to have it) was that my love and need for solitude grew by leaps and bounds. I've never been bored in my life with my own company and creativity, and hardly ever lonely. I also admit that the internet is a blessings for older people who do have to slow down and stay home more. It came at just the right time for me!

What a great posting from you and the comments that followed.
I, too, found myself in a career that required a lot of interaction and socializing. I lived for the day that I could move to a quieter more relaxing atmosphere. Now retired with a little part-time work, I find myself alone a lot except for my dogs. This gives me more time to find out what makes me happy and to find serenity.
Great feedback and being alone doesn't mean being lonely. We have choices and our attitude that makes the difference.

OOOOh Boy! Am I with you on this one!
I was an only child, and spent much of my childhood alone. The I got into advertising and broadcasting, and my days were full of people and deadlines. Then I would go home, instead of out with the crew for a drink ... and savor the peace and quiet.

I have always told people, I am often alone, but I'm never lonely!

Sounds like a lot of your "fans" feel the same way, too.

I am writing this only because there is a box with the word post and it is empty. I have spent my life trying to please other people - make them smile and like me etc. etc. etc. Now I don't give a "flying foof" if they like me or not - I LIKE ME and being alone or with my dear husband of 47 years - he does his own thing too....is just fine for me. We are born alone and we die alone...so we have to find what works for us...me-and being able to have no bosses or "yentas" or that gossip...makes life very peaceful. Just watch the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" to make one feel glad to be alone.

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