I was going to write about sex today but as I was going through my usual morning procrastination, I came across a story in the Marin Independent Journal about aging and loneliness that is stunning.
"The most dreaded thing there is about getting older is the isolation involved in it,” says 91-year-old Steve. “It's a death sentence.
"Loneliness can grab you by the throat and immobilize you,” he continues. “When you look around everyone looks so young. There is hardly no one left who remembers you in your youth — in your vitality. In death you are remembered, in old age you are forgotten.”
Harsh words. But the late Dr. Robert Butler, eminent geriatrician who coined the term “ageism” in the 1960s, agrees. As he writes in his final book, The Longevity Prescription:
”Numerous studies have led to wide-ranging conclusions about the importance of social relationships to individual good health. I have seen it in my life and so have you.
“On the darker side, the link between isolation and suicide was firmly established long ago, suggesting that, at the most elemental level, other people give us reason to live.”
Dr. Butler's prescription is to get out of one's house and into the community. Engage life. Volunteer. Start a second career. Et cetera.
Reasonable advice for those who can. But for some elders, just getting out of the house is not easy when walking is difficult or driving is no longer an option. Further, such advice doesn't often work for people caught in the terrible emotional trap loneliness can sometimes be.
Listen to Steve again:
"You know, I was a pretty dynamic individual in my youth. I fought for things like paid vacations, a five-day-a-week schedule for workers. I was a leader and took the corporations on.
“I was always fighting for the little man and for the middle class. I had so much energy and applied that energy to the betterment of mankind...
"Now, life is like cotton candy: there's no substance to it...Now we are shoved out of the home and institutionalized.
“We are indeed a number, a face, a body to be cared for. We are given everything we need, but we can't get what we need ourselves. And this makes the whole procedure routine, not a bit exciting or challenging, or creative.
“And so we wait, wait, wait and maybe the grandchildren will come and visit and maybe my four children will come, but they are always so busy.”
Does Steve sound like a crabby old man to you? Someone who refuses to make his own way? Not to me. My heart breaks for him and all the other old people like him because I've been there more than once, even recently.
Although I am more self-sufficient than many, needing a lot more time alone than some people find comfortable, at several times in my life I have been so lonely that I had intimate knowledge of the immobility Steve speaks of above. I couldn't do anything but pull the covers over my head and weep.
It wasn't depression – at least, not yet. If the phone had rung with someone I knew, even just an acquaintance, offering as simple an invitation as to meet for coffee, I would have been over the moon.
Yes, I knew it was up to me and I was very good at beating myself up over allowing myself to become paralyzed. But the kind of bone-deep loneliness Steve speaks of (and I have known) is as as physically crippling as it is emotionally so.
Yet, all it can take to crack the impasse is one other human acknowledging you and asking to spend some time together.
Anyone of any age can be lonely. Lonely in a crowd and all that. But old people are particularly susceptible because we are no longer automatically placed in social situations through work and children – a situation we have taken for granted for 35 or 40 or more years.
When we retire, that camaraderie is suddenly jerked away from us. For awhile many of us can probably find substitutes, to a degree, depending on our interests and capacities. But when we reach old, old age, as Steve has, that becomes problematic.
As you are undoubtedly tired of hearing, this is one of the reasons I promote blogging as an almost perfect pastime for elders. Even with minimal involvement, you're almost bound to make a couple of new friends across the ether of cyberspace.
But it is not a cure-all or a panacea. It's not for everyone and even in blogging, there still the strong, human need for face-to-face contact. Steve again:
”"My mind is spry and alert, but my body is decrepit. I get lonely often. Sometimes I even call my health-care provider and make up an excuse about my health so that I have the nurse to talk to. Old age isn't cracked up to be what they say it can be.”
Which reminds me that sometimes, I suspect, this blog's perspective (and therefore my own) can be a bit too rosy about aging.
”It would be a little easier though,” says Steve, “if when older people are out in public that people come over and say, 'Hello, how are you?' and talk to us oldies.
“If everyone was more friendly and kind I think that would help us a lot. It's such a little thing to ask."
You can read Steve's entire story here.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: All I Can Do is Watch