We are, we’re told, “social animals;” certainly, we have a tendency to “flock” and, in some cases, to “swarm!” But most of us wouldn’t argue the point that most of us are intrinsically “social” – whatever that means.
And most of us have heard the phrase, “Loneliness kills,” right? Well, now we have a study to point to that saying it is actually true. Without going into all the details of said study, the bottom-line is that Elders who report feeling lonely are more likely to suffer a “decline in function” (meaning, less mobile and less able to take care of themselves), a general decline in their health and/or kick the proverbial bucket earlier than Elders who don’t.
You probably just saw the same picture I saw, right? The little, old Old Person, sitting at home, probably with the blinds drawn, getting older and older and older … and sicker and sicker and weaker and weaker and stranger and stranger. There is truth to that picture, right here – maybe next door. Or maybe that sounds too much like you and this is already getting to be scary and sad. Stick with me – please.
OK, that’s one picture, but get this: In the study, almost two-thirds of the folks who reported feeling lonely were married or living with a partner! The researchers defined loneliness as feeling left out or isolated or lacking companionship.
This would be the obvious place for me to crack wise about the quality of those marriages or relationships, but I’m not going to, because that isn’t necessarily what this is about. Another old saw we’ve heard forever is that you “…don’t have to be alone to be lonely;” apparently, true again. You know that picture we saw up above of the little, old Old Person sitting at home? Make it two little, old Old People – same picture.
Left out, isolated, lacking companionship. Researchers include stories of folks who can’t gain weight because eating is a social experience for them, and they’re alone, so they don’t eat. Or folks who need to stay on a health care regimen but can’t seem to because there’s no one to remind them to take a pill – or even to care.
“I don’t want to bother anybody” – Sound familiar? Children and grandchildren are Lord-knows-where living a lifestyle that may seem vaguely…Martian: “I don’t want to bother anybody.” So, we don’t.
We stay home (wherever “home” is) and get quieter and sicker and lonelier and more detached, and we focus on what we can’t do and how bad the pain is, so we can’t do more and more and the pain is worse and worse and the circle goes round and round and pretty soon the pain and the disabilities become our “friends” – they keep us company. We talk to them! So, it’s perfectly natural that, on the rare occasion we have someone to talk to, we certainly talk about them: Our pain, our disabilities, our afflictions.
Then we wonder why that particular visitor hasn’t hastened to return for another fun-filled 90 minutes of, “What’s Wrong with Me TODAY!”
Right: The circle goes round and round.
So, do I have a magic “program” or “service” that will make it all better? No. Sure, there actually are some programs that can and do help some folks in some situations, and there are any numbers of ideas for helping folks get re-involved in this weird thing we call “life,” but am I about to spring the FIX on you? No, because I don’t have one.
OK, then, what are we supposed to do? Run next door everyday to have coffee with Mrs. Jones? OK.
Call Grandpa everyday to see how was lunch and “…how ‘bout them Mariners?” Sure.
Go across the street and invite her (or him) to go with you? Or ask some advice? Or…? …hmm…
As we’re thinking to ourselves how busy we are (and we are) and that we probably don’t have time to do that (and we probably don’t), we’re also realizing that we could be looking in a mirror – and we could be.
It is undeniably true that, as a society and a culture, we need to get better at exploiting this resource we call “Elders” (OK, “seniors,” if you must). Letting people get to a certain age, or to an artificial status we’ve chosen to call “retirement,” then ceasing to utilize all that experience and expertise and, likely, time and energy, is scary-stupid.
Left out, isolated, lacking companionship. And I’d throw in, lacking purpose, not plugged-in, not a part of, separate. Alone. Using up time and experience and health care, alone. Making friends with our disabilities, staying out of the way, waiting to get out of the way, once and for all.
And maybe – just, maybe – we have some responsibility here, too; after all, these are our lives. I mean, we could involve ourselves in groups, in activities, in volunteer work – there’s plenty of that these days, that actually makes life better for living things who could stand to have their lives made better. We can go next door, we can pick up the phone, we can offer to help or babysit, we could fix something.
We are not required to go peacefully or quietly. We can stand up for what we believe in, or try to figure out what it is we believe in by listening and talking and being “a part of.” And no, we don’t have to be gadget-literate to be a part of life on Earth (“I don’t even know what FACEBOOK is!”). I don’t care – you aren’t dead.
At some point in our lives, we were required to build a life. We have not been exempted from that requirement simply because we’ve attained a certain age or managed to incur some condition or diagnosis – Life does, in fact, go on, so DO SOMETHING!
I don’t care if you want to or not, or feel like it, or not – DO SOMETHING! Then, do another thing – force yourself. I don’t care if you like it right away or you don’t – for crying-out-loud, do something! Because then, you might do another thing. And another. Or find out that the first thing you did was wrong, so this time you’ll try something different. And do it better; then, do it again. Because life dispels loneliness.
And as you’re making yourself do something, whatever that something is, and however long it’s been since the last time you did it, remember the most important word that any of us ever learned, many decades ago:
Mark Harvey is the director of Senior Information and Assistance for Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He can be reached at email@example.com or 532-0520 in Aberdeen, (360) 942-2177 in Raymond or (360) 642-3634. FACEBOOK: Olympic Area Agency on Aging-Information & Assistance.