Economic Inequality – a Life and Death Proposition
Crabby Old Lady Takes a Breather

Elders and Loneliness

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

Comments

At 76 I'm still quite a few years away from 91. My husband is closer at 83. We're both introverts and do not have a wide social circle. I have no idea how I will make my way in the world at 91 if I'm still here, especially if he is gone by then, which is likely.

If I can still see, am somewhat healthy and have access to a computer, I can still speak out and support the causes I believe in. I hope I will still be motivated to do so. Perhaps by then I will have started my own blog (like Ronni, I think blogging can be a big part of the answer to social isolation for elders). Even so, old-old age is uncharted territory for me and for a lot of us in our 70s and 80s.

I'm still working P/T now. I drive, grocery shop, volunteer, do housework and many of the other things I did in my 60s. Will this be the case if I make it to 91? Odds are, not so much.

Steve, I'd be interested in knowing more about you and how you've navigated life so far. I'm already convinced that in our society "old" isn't something people want to be (especially women). Although many may say they want to live to be 100, personally I'm not so sure about that!

Dear Ronni: Ok, I promise I will make an effort not to be so intimidated by you, and I'll take you out to coffee next time I am up. Even if you are Crabby or under the covers, out to coffee we will go. :)

Sincerely,

I have so often wished I lived nearer to Crabby Old Lady (and now Steve) so we could talk face to aging face! The other thing I wish but haven't figured out how to make happen is living in some sort of commune with other hip old ladies. But how to fine 'em? I'm a champion Googler but haven't found the answer yet.
Any answers to that one?

I'm going to risk sounding skeptical. I don't mean to because I'm fully aware that 91 is a different place than where I live at 66, but: Is Steve the only resident in the retirement home? At 91 he may not be physically able to get out and volunteer so he can choose a suitable environment, but surely there's someone he could buddy up with where he lives? I know he's speaking of deeper longings, but maybe he should be saying to others "Hello, how are you today" instead of wishing they would talk to him. I bet he gets a bunch of letters from readers of the article if they can figure out which retirement home he's in. I may write one myself!

My father before he died, as well as an extended family member of 89, had many stories of not being able to break through the existing cliques in the retirement homes they chose. It took them well over a year to break through the invisible wall much like junior high and both of them were pretty outgoing and social. So sometimes even living in the midst of others can be a tough go. I do like the idea of a hip old ladies commune. Still get out while you can and do things for others seems to work for me.

I have a friend in his 90s who recently entered a nursing home, along with his wife who has dementia. I think that for the first time in his life he struggles with loneliness. Nursing homes can be quite isolating when one has mobility issues, which I surmise is not unusual at that age. Also, most of his old friends are long gone. I think this is a real and serious issue and I have no answer to it. The idea of a community of hip old ladies is great, I'd love to live there too, but what happens when one requires the kind of care a nursing home provides? The hip old ladies will have to be wealthy enough to provide that for themselves and I suspect most of them are not.

The Home for Hip Old Ladies? Sign me up!

Oh my
this really hit home.
Winter has seemed longer this year and have had some severe issues for months (that at the moment seem to be going away) Just did not feel like leaving my cottage by the woods. When I did it helped
as people are saying hello, smiling and you are back in civilization. My mind never stopped with the thoughts of 4 wonderful children and 5 grandchildren which are all over the world and not near.
Oh, they email daily and tell me I need to get out more but human contact seemed to cease for a number of months. I am healthy, outgoing one in late 70's. Problem I love my cottage that I recently relocated too, isolation, writing, gardening and suddenly am aware that as time goes by I need more
people contact.
So at the moment one day at a time and hope depression never takes hold and stays.

So many thoughts tumble through my mind concerning this posting. 1) I do not recall ever feeling really lonely. Perhaps it is poor memory? 2) Surely, in nearly any skilled nursing home, the women outnumber the men in both residency and in staffing. It baffles me that a man could find loneliness in a nursing home setting. 3) We cannot, cannot, cannot wait for others to "make our day" for us. Sadly, more easily said than done, I'm sure. 4) Perhaps what Steve really craves is a buddy, a pal, which may be none-too-easy in the nursing home because most of the humans with whom he comes into contact are women. 5) How in the world can we expect anyone to see us as we thought of ourselves at earlier ages? Wishful thinking. Good luck in fulfilling that dream.

This was a hard posting to read - particularly because it is difficult to feel the isolation of another.

I have known a few elders in the past who craved human interaction, but the problem was not with others, it was that the people who were lonely were not fun or interesting to be with. If all you ever do is complain about the "way thing used to be" - no one will find it pleasant to be with you.

I love Jean's idea above of living in a commune when older. I've talked about this with my friends.

As for talking to older people as Steve suggests? I helped a 90 year old woman onto the bus with her shopping trolley one day and sat next to her. We had a great conversation on the way about her growing up in a country town and the expectations around girls at that time. I was sorry when we both had to get off the bus and the conversation ended.

Celia's comment is relevant for single people, and sadly, so is Kenju's. Most people who have a disengaging personality don't realize they do. I'm finding a similar situation in a town on the Oregon coast. Everyone seems to be married and deeply involved with family! But I volunteer and have met my social need for woman talk and giggles there.

Two sites for finding friends with similar interests are MeetUp.com and not4dating.com.

Unfortunately, they don't have much of a footprint in smaller towns. If you live in a metro area however, go check them out!

I don't much like Facebook, but if ever there was a venue to find people with similar interests, that ought to be part of their service.

the elephant in the room. thank you.

Steve sounds like an interesting guy. I am so sorry he is lonely.

Like you, Ronni, I can spend huge chunks of time alone, but I also get lonely sometimes.

I moved to a new state last year and obtained a work from home job which made getting to know people a bit harder than usual. Slowly, I have been getting to know my neighbors. Mostly I have done ok, but some days were really tough.

Techonology is both a blessing and a curse, but I am grateful for it especially on my really lonely days.

Funny thing about this aging process, it kind of sneaks up in different ways. I was sharing with some friends today about how I am sad about turning 70 next week. Where have all the years gone? I'm lucky that I have good genes and look 10 years younger and act that way as well. I'm healthy and have an upbeat attitude. But sometimes you can't just help the grief and sadness that hits. So I am working on what I can do and making friends and staying connected is one of the keys to my happiness. I appreciated this article and Steve and will acknowledge those older than myself when I meet them or see them. A smile goes a long way. Brenda

Mage, how interesting that perhaps we both feel somewhat intimidated by Ronni. I've always loved to write but I'm not nearly as good at it as she is. I certainly never made a living from it as she did for many years. She's a transplanted New York woman-of-the-world (think "The New Yorker" and the old Elaine's restaurant) while I've spent my entire life in California and Washington. I visited Hawaii and Jamaica years ago, but I'm not much of a traveler--which I guess is a very good thing for my pocketbook.

Seriously, I so respect Ronni's talent and ability to distill reams of difficult, tedious facts and figures into posts everyone can read and understand. BTW, I rather think it would be fun to meet both of you for coffee.

One of the loneliest places is a long term hospital stay in a town where you don't have close friends. It taught me the value of the few connections I did make. What a joy to have a visitor! And how great to get phone calls from far away friends. We do indeed crave and require human connection. We cannot deny our tribal nature.

PS -- So when are we going to talk about sex?

Unless you actually spend time in some of these aged care facilities you really have no idea how difficult communication is -no matter how 'nice' or 'interesting' you are - I volunteer in our local facility and am struck by the silence - many of the residents suffer from Alzheimers or dementia - others just seem to shrink into themselves as almost all decisions are made for them - if the numbers are small in the facility your choice of like minded companions is even more limited - staff are pleasant (mostly) but rarely have time or inclination to sit down and chat to residents. I advise the volunteers I co-ordinate - just go in and chat with the residents - have a normal conversation - we don't always have to be having "activities" which often in themselves reduce communication. It is a very difficult problem both inside and outside institutions and one we all have to think about and research while we are still able to come up with solutions. Blogging and emails will certainly help and I'll be interested to see what these facilities are like with the next generation (me?) in them - when everyone is technologically savvy.

excellent topic. although i am merely 67, I have for the past five years experienced great lonliness. somehow i have gotten myself stuck living in an umpopulated place, or at least not highly populated. I also fear driving in snow and ice. I have made very few face to face friends here. Everyone is busy at work and raising kids etc. As with yourself, I like large spaces of alone time. But not this large. Thanks for addressing this issue.

Steve sounds like an excellent communicator, even if he may have lost some physical mobility along the way. I like what Lauren suggested about older people taking the initiative in saying "Hi, how are you" to anyone who looks interesting to them. If you don't at first succeed, try, try again. I would definitely return his greeting, and even sit and chat for a while -- if there's a place to sit! [Grocery stores, in particular, should consider having small areas just for taking a load off..and for CHATTING! Guess they don't want to give up the shelf space. :-(] I'm one of those people who talk to complete strangers when waiting in line, or wandering through a store. They're stuck with me for a few minutes, sometimes not more than a few seconds. But I seldom fail to elicit a cheerful response. And that makes ME feel good, too! Before I needed reading glasses I used to help older people read labels. It made me feel good then, so I suppose I'm passing it on -- although that just this minute occurred to me!

@ Jeannette: According to the linked article, Steve doesn't live in a nursing home. He lives in a "retirement home." Isn't there a difference? I, too, wonder how things will be if I live to be 91. So many of us now have access to the internet. I could give up an actual TV, and even a phone. The internet? Never! There are always free, online ways to see your favorite shows and movies -- PBS is very generous about offering free access -- and to call friends -- Skype, for instance. Here's to offering free internet connections to residents of retirement homes and nursing homes! If you can type, you can figure out the rest of it. I expect to never ever quit learning something new every single day for as long as long as my brain is functioning. If that goes, I sincerely hope someone kind will pull the plug.

Kenju makes an interesting point about older people who complain and whose them is "things ain what they used to be". And it struck me how prevalent that is. I belong to a women's breakfast group that meets monthly. We have a speaker for various topics but it is obvious that had we none, the women would be happy to meet up over the traditional egg, bacon, sausage, baked beans and toast and just talk.

I've listened in and been the recipient of the main topics: illnesses and ailments and who's died recently. We're all between 55 and 85, different nationalities and all English speaking. Even our monthly book club goes off track and 8 women land up talking about illness and death.

These groups are a great bringer-together of part of the community but how I wish they'd broad their conversation horizons.

Rant over.....

My husband just flew north to visit his brother who is in the hospital and giving up. One his first visit he had him out of the room and down to eat in the cafeteria. He is also willing now to do his physical therapy. People just being with people can make such a difference.

This post really hit a nerve. I have always maintained that I love being independent and that I am not lonely.

Suddenly I feel lonely at times. My daughter went through three years of a very bad time in her life and I was the rock she leaned on. Then my son was in the bad accident that I recently wrote about. Now, they are both doing well (although Mark still has months of physical therapy to go through and be fully healed). They no longer need my council.

For the first time in my life I am not needed. My job is over and I feel adrift at times. I am one of those elders who no longer drive, cannot walk very far, and do not have many physical friends left. All of my family members live in other states and most of my closest friends do also. I have no social life at all. My only relief from isolation is my computer and the Internet friends I have made.

My analysis is that you are prone to loneliness if you no longer feel that you are of value to someone or to something outside of yourself. I could let my feeling of isolation propel me into a pity party or I can do something about it.

I try to always have one project that I will do each day, even if it's just dusting. That keeps me feeling productive. Then I have other projects that I want to do and that gives me a goal. I write to friends via e-mail and that gives me a social life of sorts. I hope that I can stave off a feeling of being lonely, but I now see it will become a battle as I am less able to do the things that now keep me occupied.

Lest I sound too maudlin I need to add that I do have two Tucson friends that are there for me when I need them and they are in constant touch with me.

I'm sorry I did not see this post earlier.

This is certainly a topic to which I can relate as I have, surprisingly to me, experienced some times in the recent 2 or 3 years when I became aware of feeling lonely.

I miss occasional phone calls I used to receive from several friends across the miles as their number dwindles.

Earlier this month when I voted midday in our local school board election, I was approaching my car when a woman I did not know spoke to me. She spoke of uncertainty about the candidates (I think we were outside the legal distance for campaigning, but I didn't anyway.) She then spoke of some of her concerns in the neighborhood where she lived which didn't apply to mine some distance away.

Our conversation was short and I spoke little, but she evolved into saying I had looked to her like someone who she could comfortably approach. Her words clearly revealed she was lonely, and had been since her husband's death 11 yrs earlier, mentioned a son far away who offered little attention.

I acknowledged that I could identify with her and had been having my times with similar feelings. For me, they seem to come on weekends.

For her, as for me, and many of us, friends are now caregiving spouses, live far away, or have died -- even the younger ones. Medical problems surface with even younger friends which can result in a spouse needing to care for the other, and be sandwiched with older family.

But this lady I'm describing acknowledged going to the local senior center when I suggested it. I don't go there since when I work my part time efforts are in the day time. Most of the activities don't really interest me. At most I commiserated with her but needed to get a late lunch after working a few hours that day. We parted, but later in the day when relaxed at home, I thought of her as I did periodically the next few days.

Should I have reached out to her more I wondered? I talked about that with a 70 yr old and 90 yr old I see regularly where I get my hair done. But one still has spouse, the other still very active and both have family about. There was more detail about the woman than I shared here, but the general consensus from these two women was understanding of the concern I felt for this pleasant woman and why I didn't become more involved.

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