It has been known for years now that loneliness can be devastating to the health and well-being of old people. According to a report from the National Poll on Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan published earlier this year,
”Research shows that chronic loneliness can impact older adults’ memory, physical well-being, mental health, and life expectancy. In fact, some research suggests that chronic loneliness may shorten life expectancy even more than being overweight or sedentary, and just as much as smoking.”
Other reports have found that one-third of American elders are lonely. More women say they are lonely than men and living alone has a high correlation with loneliness.
The people who hand out advice online tell us that loneliness can be relieved by what has become a fairly standard list of prescriptions that includes volunteering, joining a tai chi class or a choir, practicing gratitude or adopting a pet. One list of this type includes buying an Amazon Echo to talk with.
Undoubtedly, much younger people are the ones making these lists. They don't often take into account such things as physical limitations or transportation difficulties, for example. Further, all the studies I've looked at assume that any person who says he or she is lonely, even those who choose the “sometimes” answer, are miserable about it.
News flash: I feel lonely sometimes. I have felt lonely sometimes throughout my life. Usually I can move on after a good night's sleep.
What has become clear in my case over the years is that I need a lot more time alone than many people I have known. No one who studies loneliness seems to have considered the fact that some of us enjoy our own company a great deal of the time.
None of that is to say that loneliness is not painful, hard to live with and often associated with depression. And old people have the added difficulty that if you live long enough, a lot of the people who mean the most to you, who you may have known for decades, die.
Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons I enjoy keeping in touch with my former husband is that he is the last human on earth who knew me when was 17. There is comfort in that.
For a story about elder loneliness last March, Time magazine interviewed Dr. Carla Perissinotto, associate chief of clinical programs in geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco:
“She says loneliness refers to 'the discrepancy between actual and desired relationships' — so it’s possible that someone who lives alone doesn’t meet that definition, while someone in a house full of busy people does. 'It gets to the quality of the relationship,; she says.
“Perissinotto says it’s important to address each person’s underlying cause of loneliness, whether it’s the death of a spouse, medical problems that make it difficult to socialize or leave the home or unmet social expectations.
“Doing so takes 'understanding and being honest with yourself about whether you could be experiencing loneliness,; Perissinotto says.”
There is at least one place in the world that has done more about elder loneliness than any of those lists could. I was alerted to it by TGB reader John Gear.
This short video explains clearly what has been happening in Frome, England, after a doctor there created a system in which loneliness is treated as a medical condition. Take a look:
I'm not sure that the same approach would work everywhere but a good start would be to make loneliness an integral part of healthcare, something physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals ask patients about. Of course, the hard part comes next - finding ways to help. I suspect what works in a small town would be difficult in larger cities.
What do you think?