Scenario 1: Shortly after you’ve fulfilled a longtime retirement dream and bought a house in Naples, Florida, your wife of 49 years dies of an aneurysm. Your three grown children still live in New England, and you know none of your Florida neighbors.
Martha was always the social one, arranging get-togethers, pushing you to join a book club, inviting friends to the house.
It’s summertime, months after the funeral, and except for your early morning walks, you stay indoors to avoid the heat, watching the news too many hours a day, reading, and doing some minor repairs. The kids call once a week, but you spend most of your time alone. You feel cut off from others, but you don’t want to admit your depression and loneliness to your children.
Besides, you’ve just bought the house and would take a financial wallop if you sold it and moved back north.
Scenario 2: Your elderly mother still owns her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you grew up, but you are now approaching your 50th birthday and living with your family in New Orleans. You’ve encouraged her time and again to come stay with you, but Mom refuses. You call her every two or three days, and lately, she sounds fretful on the phone, worrying about strange noises at night and wondering aloud three or four times during every conversation whether she has locked the doors.
Most of her old friends and neighbors have either died or moved away, and she spends the bulk of her days alone in a house too big for her.
Scenario 3: You visit your father in a nearby assisted-living facility three times a week, where he is well-cared for and in generally good spirits, despite his crippling arthritis. In the common room, you frequently see a man sitting in a wheelchair staring blank-faced at the television. When you ask your dad about the man, he shakes his head and says, “Joe’s kids live a thousand miles away and dumped him here six months ago. Haven’t come to see him since then.
“We try to include him on game nights and get him involved in the community, but I think he’s just too depressed and lonely to participate. A loner.”
Even before the arrival of the pandemic and the subsequent stay-at-home orders around the country, loneliness adversely affected the health of large numbers of our older citizens. In her online article, “Facts about Senior Isolation and the Effects of Loneliness That Will Stun You,” Claire Samuels points out that the Census Bureau reports 13.8 million, or nearly one-third, of Americans over the age of 65 live alone. While living alone isn’t necessarily indicative of loneliness, that danger is much more likely than if we are living with others.
And danger there is. As Samuels and others reveal, the devastating consequences of loneliness and isolation for the elderly include not only mental problems such as depression and anxiety, but also physical consequences. Researchers have linked obesity, high blood pressure, weakened immune systems, cognitive disorders, and early death to chronic loneliness.
An Undiagnosed Malady
Once in its grip, seniors—and I am one—may have trouble finding our way out of our malaise. We sink into depression, often without even knowing it, become more and more lethargic, and begin to regard our sadness and misery as if they were normal. Most of us have our televisions, our phones, and our computers, but we long, knowingly or unknowingly, for human company.
Here’s a small example: A man I know dislikes going to the dentist, but didn’t know how lonely he was until a dental hygienist cleaned his teeth. When he recognized that her closeness, her idle chatter, and the touch of her latex-gloved fingers on his face had been the highlight of his week, my friend realized he had placed himself in extreme self-isolation without being aware of doing so.
So what can we do about isolation? How can we who are over the age of 65 fight loneliness, and how can we help those unable to help themselves?
Here are some suggestions gleaned from my own experience and from various online sites.
Change Our Ways
This is a tough one, particularly for those who are my age. We have long embraced certain patterns of behavior, and to blow ourselves out of that pattern—some might say rut—is difficult.
Nonetheless, if you feel lonely, here are some tips to widen your horizons and your contact with others.
Enter into the community around you. Volunteer at a local elementary school, as one 80-year-old man I know did, teaching chess and reading stories to fourth-graders. Tutor in the literacy program at your local library. If you enjoy singing, join a choir. Take a class at the local community college.
Take up a new hobby that involves others. Dance lessons, tai chi, knitting clubs, library-sponsored book clubs: All of these activities and more provide opportunities to meet and make new friends.
Visit your local animal shelter and adopt a pet. Many elderly people I know love their cat or dog, and that love brings happiness in its wake.
Pick some café or coffee bar as your hangout. Show up four or five times a week, get to know the baristas and some of the customers, listen to the chatter of the people around you. This one definitely has worked for me. Simply being in the presence of others livens up my mood and my day.
You might even consider taking up a job, even one beneath your capabilities. At the laundromat I use, the woman who is sometimes in charge, Viola, just celebrated her 86th birthday. She has children and grandchildren who might care for her, but she enjoys her work. She knows the regulars, earns a little money, keeps active and busy, and feels she is contributing to her family and society.
Helping the Infirm
Many older people reside in nursing homes or assisted care facilities, or are confined to their houses by their infirmities.
For these seniors, we can make our presence known in numerous ways. If we live near an aged parent or grandparent, we can set aside some time to visit them. If distance separates us from them, or if we are worried about spreading COVID-19, we can call them frequently or send them letters. Many nursing homes have volunteers who come to read or play games with the residents, and we can encourage our relatives to take advantage of these services.
If we have older neighbors, we can make it a point to visit them, however briefly, throughout the week.
The last time I saw my mother-in-law before her death in a nursing home in Atlanta—she was suffering from dementia—Dorothy thought I was a high school classmate, though 25 years separated us. It didn’t matter. She was just happy to have some company, someone to chat up. The same was true when my grandchildren visited her. She recognized none of them, but it didn’t matter. She glowed with happiness whenever visitors came to see her.
Presence Is All It Takes
In “Love Is Not All,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote these lines:
“Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.”
If we feel alone, we must seek out the laughter, smiles, and voices of others. And if we have elderly relatives, friends, or neighbors, we can bring them the good medicine of ourselves.
Presence defeats the lack of love. Presence conquers loneliness.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.