It has never in history been easier to reach out and touch someone than it is today, yet health care professionals continue to sound the alarm about epidemic levels of chronic loneliness and its potentially devastating health implications. News and health sites report studies indicating loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking or obesity, especially in seniors. This National Institute on Aging research suggests more social interaction can make our lives better, especially for our elderly population.
Aging in decades past
I was born during a time when society guided our connections throughout our lives. The social construct at the time, some 80-plus years ago, dictated mothers and fathers create a family unit for their children, socialize them, and eventually enroll them in school. They might go on to higher education, and probably marry and have their own children.
We dutifully followed the process, connecting first with our parents and siblings, neighborhood friends, then teachers and school mates, spouses, children, and eventually our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Each transition oftentimes brought a sense of wistful longing for the time before it. We felt lonesome for what used to be. But society and our curiosity quickly pushed us forward. We believed in a future that held promise and adventure.
School mates and later co-workers filled our weeks with lots of opportunities to connect with a variety of people. I remember Saturday shopping with family and friends. It didn’t matter that we had little money for extras. We’d stroll through avenues of stores, simply window shopping as we discussed the events of the week. Sunday we met with familiar faces of our church congregation. Bridge and book clubs, dinner parties, and other gatherings provided plenty of time and space to develop new and lasting friendships.
Even though our American society encouraged independence and self-reliance, we nonetheless expected to take care of our elders when they could no longer do so on their own. Many of my own family and friends’ grandparents and elderly aunts and uncles lived with various of their family members. Old age, while not entirely welcome, wasn’t a time to be feared, it was a time to relax and be taken care of and to remain relevant and respected, supported by relationships built on a lifetime of connections.
The changing state of the present
Our society has gradually loosened its grip on the strict family structure, bringing us many changes. Women can now freely live independent lives, children have greater say in their own futures, and rigid norms have given way to greater choice and freedoms for those pursuing what used to be called alternative lifestyles. We can shop, attend college, and play games all on our smart phones at any time of the day or night, which can bring both awe and fear to those who haven’t grown up immersed in 24/7 connectivity. The amazing technological advances that have allowed us to easily reconnect with old high school friends also makes it easy to never have to leave home. While convenient and fun, this also isolates us from each other.
As we grow older, opportunities to meet new people become fewer. Transitions can seem more sad than hopeful: friends move away, kids go off to college, we face downsizing our homes and parting with cherished mementos. Sometimes these life changes don’t provide excitement for what’s ahead, but apprehension about the direction of our life and what it means to become less active, less needed, and more alone. In contrast to a future full of hope and promise, days might be filled with the realization that we aren’t as young as we used to be: our minds aren’t as sharp, our stamina wanes quickly, and we start to wonder what our futures do indeed have in store for us.
Older adults adapting for the future
Longing for yesteryear won’t bring back our sock hops or bridge club, but there are ways to help older adults connect with others. Of course the best alternative to loneliness is in-person interaction with loved ones. If you have an elder in your life who is alone or you think may be experiencing feelings of loneliness, consider reaching out to them and perhaps make some time for them. Setting up regular visiting times is a wonderful way to stave off loneliness for seniors. Seniors will look forward to your visits and provide opportunities for grandchildren to create wonderful relationships that may be cherished for a lifetime. Setting the example for your children and grandchildren that our elders are important and should be respected and valued is a gift not only for the seniors, but for the children as well.
Visits can be the perfect time to gradually introduce your older adult to new technology, taking extra care to avoid overwhelming them. Our kids introduced us to the Internet when we were in our early 60s. They gave us a WebTV for Christmas in 2000. We enjoyed “going online” through our TV (back in the days of dial up!). The following Christmas they bought us a personal computer. I enjoyed emailing pictures, shopping on Amazon, and even visiting online chat rooms.
Then the smart phone was invented. Less intimidating than a personal computer and small enough to be carried around in our pockets, these little masterpieces of technology instantly connect us to our families and friends on Facebook, showcase the creatives among us on Instagram and Pinterest, and tweet us breaking news and notes of the day on Twitter. Shopping for food or fashion takes a quick Google search and a couple of clicks. Texting, messaging and Facetiming might just be the next best thing to being there for your family.
Family projects can help fight loneliness
You can turn your family visits into a family project. Maybe your kids would like to write a book about the life of their grandparent. Show your kids pictures of your parents when they were children and young adults. Have your kids prepare questions for their grandparents to learn more about the lives of their elders. It doesn’t have to be a formal book, but it can be. There are self publishing companies on the internet now that will publish as few as one or two copies for you.
Do you have a young videographer in your family? Turn the book project into a video. Let the kids use their phones to take video and ask Grandma and Grandpa questions about their lives. You can video Grandma cooking a favorite recipe with her grandchildren on your smart phone. Later the clips can be compiled into a family history video. Not only will you have an elder who feels valued, but you also will have a wonderful keepsake for your children to share with future generations.
Greatest gifts for lonely seniors
One of the greatest gifts you can give a senior is your time. We remember how pressed for time we used to be and will appreciate you giving up some of yours to spend it with us. Your interest in our lives help create the connections we need to thrive.
Patience is another valuable gift you can give when interacting with older adults. Some of us don’t hear as well and can’t move as quickly as when we were younger. We may stay inside more and our worlds may become insular and small. Many of us are on a fixed income and can’t go out as often as we’d like even if we are physically able. Yes, we sometimes complain about our latest ache or pain, but be patient. Sometimes it helps just to know someone cares to listen.
Ask your elder if there are errands they need help completing. Running to the grocery store, taking the dog to the vet, or picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy are all easily accomplished in the course of a normal day. But for some seniors these tasks can be daunting.
Older adults are generally strong individuals. We have struggled through traumas, adapted to heartbreak, and cherished hard-won triumphs. You might be surprised to find how quickly we can adapt to this new fast-paced world, given a little time, patience, and understanding.
Alone with your loneliness
Sometimes loneliness warrants more intervention than we can do for ourselves. Losing our spouses, friends, and our beloved pet companions as we grow older can eventually leave us isolated, worn out, and seemingly without hope or help. If you are alone and lonely, let your physician know what you are going through. He or she may have access to supportive resources in your community.
If you have found helpful ways of dealing with your loneliness, let us know in the comments below. The pain of loneliness lets us know we need to reach out to others and make the important emotional connections that sustain us throughout our lives. Your suggestions may help ease another’s pain.