It is conventional wisdom now that loneliness in old age is “epidemic” and lonely old people, researchers regularly tell us, are more likely to become ill or die earlier than elders who are not lonely. As the Los Angeles Daily News noted in 2013:
”Almost 25 percent of those reporting they were lonely also reported a decline in their ability to carry out what is called activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing or getting up from a chair or bed without assistance. Only 12.5 percent of those who were not lonely reported such declines.
“Here’s the most dramatic finding: lonely older adults were 45 percent more likely to die compared to those who had meaningful connections. That was after researchers accounted for factors of depression, socioeconomic status and health.”
There are dozens of studies going back at least to the 1990s that report similar statistics about loneliness in old age. As a result, there is not a caregiving website worth its name without a long list of activities one should undertake to get elders out of their homes and into social situations.
There is no doubt there are lonely old people who would feel better if they had someone to talk or have coffee with, go for a walk or watch a movie, for example, and when we can help, we all should.
But contrary to the alarm mongers, not every old person who spends a lot of time alone is unhappy, lonely or depressed. I am one of those.
Being social exhausts me nowadays. Certainly I enjoy it but after a meal or visit with friends, even those I love and adore or even just like, I not only want to be alone for awhile, I need it to restore myself. In my case, it has always been that way, even in my youth. It is part of my nature.
Now there is some related and intriguing new research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst about how old people view emotions differently from young people. From ScienceDaily:
”The older adults in this study reported fewer depressive symptoms than the younger participants."
“Controlling for age group differences in these symptoms, Ready says, 'We gained a deeper appreciation of some relatively unknown benefits of aging, such as increased positive emotions and less shame associated with feeling sad or lonely.'”
This is such a tiny study (32 age 60 to 92, and 111 between ages 18 to 32) that it is not possible to take away anything definitive but I'm certainly glad someone doesn't automatically go along with the knee-jerk assumption that if an elder is not volunteering twice a week, a member of four clubs and taking classes at the local college, they are pathologically lonely.
Associate professor Rebecca Ready in the department of psychological and brain sciences at UM found in this new study that old people have more positive responses than young adults about such feelings as serenity, sadness and loneliness.
”She says, 'Older adults report feeling more serenity than younger persons. They also have a richer concept of what it means to feel serene than younger persons.'
“In a word grouping task, older adults associated more positive emotional terms with serene, such as cheerful, happy and joyful, than did younger people. The authors speculate that 'this broader conception of serene' is associated with the fact that older adults report more calming positive emotions than younger people...
“The older adults in this study reported fewer depressive symptoms than the younger participants. Controlling for age group differences in these symptoms, Ready says, 'We gained a deeper appreciation of some relatively unknown benefits of aging, such as increased positive emotions and less shame associated with feeling sad or lonely.'”
When I last wrote about elder loneliness a few years, a reader noted that perhaps growing old generates a desire to go inward, to be less social.
That thought led me to look once again at Carl Jung's seven tasks of aging, which come to many elders quite naturally (without even knowing who Jung was). They pretty much demand introspection and, therefore, solitude:
• Facing the reality of aging and dying
• Life review
• Defining life realistically
• Letting go of the ego
• Finding new rooting in the self
• Determining the meaning of one's life
• Rebirth – dying with life
These aren't tasks you think over for a bit and finish in a week or two. I've been working on them for 12 or 15 years. As I noted when I wrote about these tasks a few years ago:
”It would be a mitzvah for all of us to be alert to signs of isolation and loneliness in friends and neighbors and to help when we can. But we should also be careful to make the distinction between those who are unhappy or depressed about it and others who enjoy their solitude.”
Perhaps those "experts" who are so sure I need to join a knitting class and book club are just another case of putting all old people in a single basket. We are no more alike now than we were as children or adults.