By George Evens. The Elder Citizens Action Coalition (ECAC) is focusing upon several important issues facing Seniors. This is a column on “Loneliness”, one of the ailments facing Seniors today. Hopefully this information may assist Seniors to recognize problems, their cause and seek some solutions to their own personal Loneliness, that in turn may enhance and enrich their lives a bit.
LONELINESS & DYING – Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel” sadly claimed, “I get so lonely I could die”. While loneliness impacts upon any age it tends to manifest more upon the elderly and may contribute to failing health or an early death. In a study of 1600 seniors, a finding found seniors who reported being lonely were more likely to suffer a decline in health or die over a six-year period than those who were content with their social lives.
Loneliness takes on various forms and does not necessarily mean “being alone” – almost two-thirds of seniors in the study were married or living with a partner. At the same time, a person can be surrounded by people and feel very lonely.
Loneliness may be better defined as ‘feeling left out, being isolated or lacking companionship”. Some people enjoy being alone; being a “loner” or a “lone wolf”. Being alone, to some, gives them a chance to grow and develop their own sense of themselves. They may have meaningful activities in their lives, have a pet as a Companion or a spiritual relationship that is important to them.
Loneliness usually refers to being unhappy with the emotional and social relationships that you do not have or with the ones that you do have. It may be about whether or not you feel connected to people.
Grieving is a normal human reaction to losing someone you care about. Especially if that spouse has been a friend, lover, companion and confidante all rolled into one. Studies show loneliness can raise health risks of depression, high blood pressure and heart disease. Lack of companionship causes seniors to internalize feelings and can increase risk of death & stroke.
Some relationships between loneliness and ill health can be biological as similar to stress, it can cause a release of hormones that may impact the immune system. It may be behavioral, something as simple as “not having anyone to share a meal with” and some are bad at sticking to a health care regimen because they are lacking a friend to simply remind them to take medications. Eating is a social experience and eating alone is not enjoyable, so loss of weight may occur in some. To some, a Doctor’s visit may be the “big social activity of the day or month”.
Some Doctor’s have said, “Loneliness can leave people vulnerable to pain and other discomforts that an active social life could distract them from”. Seniors start focusing on things they can’t do and they focus upon pain. Some elders have confided, “they’re sort of done with life” . A common reason Doctors hear from Seniors is, “I don’t want to bother anyone”.
It is a selfish need too, as all of us are going to get old but we have to take care of Seniors and be mindful of their needs, we need a societal fix to make older adults feel a valuable part of our Society, which they are. For better or worse, we are what we do and if we aren’t able to do much, then we’re less and less relevant to the social fabric. If you want to avoid the feeling of irrelevancy, you need to maintain your friendships, maintain your family ties, stay an active part of other people’s lives in whatever way you can.
LONELINESS & SOME STRATEGIES TO COMBAT – Being Human we are part of a social structure that normally interacts with others. Develop a way to meet new friends and create an active social circle. Many Seniors find Computers and “surfing” provides beneficial ways to cultivate friendships, given safety precautions are observed but keeping in touch with far away family & friends can be met, in part, via online means. Frequent get togethers with people can create sense of companionship that decrease feelings of loneliness.
Becoming a Guardian to a Companion Animal fulfills a need for responsibility, daily routine of caring for a Pet is useful, creates a meaningful attachment and affection gaining a feeling of love provides a sense of security and happiness that is vital to mental & physical health. Maintaining a healthy and loving relationship can increase happiness and chase loneliness away.
Not everyone has a “Best Friend” so don’t fret if you do not. Some people have several (close) acquaintances that give love and support, whereas some prefer to establish one person they can continually count upon. A Best Friend will emerge over time and will demonstrate credibility from commitment, loyalty, being able to confide and rely on someone, but be wary the “fair-weather friend” who always lurks in the wings and may abandon you at the first hint of controversy or trouble, thus a “Best Friend” is few and far between to most, so you need to assess how you feel personally but if you feel comfortable and happy about the friendships in your life, don’t fret about not having a Best Friend.
Choose your friends carefully because similar to loneliness, happiness is also contagious. Loneliness is associated with a number of mental & physical diseases that can shorten life it is important to recognize loneliness and try to help those affected.
Persistent loneliness is associated with high blood pressure, obesity, sleep dysfunction, depression, compromised immunity and Alzheimer’s disease and stress caused by loneliness may even increase risk of cancer. So, seek to revitalize friendships & family relationships, choose friends carefully, learning is a lifelong adventure and an opportunity to expand your social network, think about Volunteering, start Exercise, join a Dance Club at your Seniors Centre but if you suspect someone you know is lonely – reach out! Similarly, if you have been feeling sad or anxious for weeks on end, stressful about financial or family relationships, if you aren’t sleeping and eating well or if you are avoiding people, you may be depressed. Don’t go it alone – seek help!
Growing older can mean dealing with many changes. Physical pain and loss of mobility can make it hard to get out. Being on your own or caring for someone can be lonely. Feeling different, feeling depressed, not speaking the same language impact upon connecting with others. Some attitudinal changes to combat ageism and abuse may help.
Loneliness is stressful. Some rely upon alcohol or medications to reduce feelings of fear or anxiety, often leaving individuals more isolated. Some Seniors become so desperate from loneliness they consider suicide. Maybe something positive like a bus ad, “We love our Seniors” may help get a message across to Society.
Routinely assess your Community, how Age-Friendly is your neighbourhood and is a formal or informal Age-Friendly Program in place to achieve results? Do your elected Politicians lead from an informed, empathetic & compassionate role, pro-active recognition of Seniors’ contributions to the Community or is indifference and making excuses for inaction more the order of the day? Do Seniors’ have a dedicated facility to gather and on a year round 24/7 availability, as loneliness doesn’t take time off evenings, weekends or holiday seasons, indeed, it often is exacerbated when comradeship is denied.
Some Associations, Seniors Activity Centre or gathering place may be perceived to “cliquish” and many may not feel comfortable attending. Some simple steps like, “recognize a 55 year old and 75 year old or over, in 80’s may have different interests; keep costs of joining & activities low; make sure the phone answerer is friendly, polite, patient and easy to understand; have a pleasant person available to meet & greet any new people and to welcome people back when they have been absent; introduce a new person around; have fairness and sharing guidelines to politely remind people that their centre is for everyone; make sure ALL staff says “Hi” to newcomers and regulars, of any age.