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