black & white photo older man alone looking out a window

Loneliness Lives Here

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Guest Author: Patricia Ferguson Meek

Thank-you Maureen for asking me to be a guest author. My nursing career spanned 42 years. As a retired nurse I volunteer in a nursing home and enjoy my many grandchildren. I have also authored memoirs about my early life, my nursing life and retirement travel with my husband.

Patricia Ferguson Meek

In our article Common Myths we asked whether it is myth or fact that the majority of seniors experience loneliness and social isolation.  We replied that while it is a myth for the majority, we acknowledged that many seniors are.

Maureen Osis

Guest author, Patricia Ferguson Meek, offers her personal observations about loneliness and social isolation for seniors living in long-term care and in the community. She poses the question how the younger generation can develop life-long interests that might help ease loneliness in their later years.

Seniors experience loneliness and social isolation

When I worked as a nurse in a long term care (LTC) setting I came to the realization that we, as caregivers, could meet most of the resident’s, (patient’s), needs. There was one exception and that was the challenge of meeting their emotional needs, especially to ease loneliness.  The elder who is in an institution is not the only one who suffers from loneliness and social isolation; the community harbours many.

This article will address the issue of loneliness and social isolation of the elderly population, the extent of the problem, various suggestions to mediate the problem and ask a question. Can younger adults develop skills, habits and a mindset that will serve them when they reach their twilight years?

What are loneliness and social isolation?

Loneliness is defined as a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation, anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings in the present and extending into the future.

Loneliness has been described as a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that a person has, compared with what a person wants. 

Social isolation can be described as having few social contacts, little meaningful interaction, or a lack of mutually rewarding relationships.

One way to think about the distinction is that a person cannot be isolated in a crowded room, but a person could feel lonely in that same room. 

How common is loneliness?

Recent research studies tell us we are a lonely country. One in five Canadians identify as lonely. One half of people over eighty report feeling lonely. Twenty-eight percent of households have only one occupant. 

A survey by the Angus Reid Institute of the Canadian public devised a scale of loneliness. (See End Notes.) Those who are both lonely and isolated make up the desolate category, and 23% of Canadians fall there.

Other categories are the lonely but not isolated(10%) and the isolated but not lonely(15%).  The moderately connected stand at 31% and 22% are the cherished. Those in the cherished category report neither social isolation nor loneliness.

What are the health risks of loneliness?

The government of Great Britain was so concerned about the negative effects of loneliness on its citizens that it established a Ministry of Loneliness in 2018. 

In 1917 Japan reported 4000 deaths per week due to loneliness.

Loneliness can cause physical as well as emotional harm and has been called the “silent killer” Only within the last decade have researchers begun to develop a true sense of the physical impact. Researcher Holt-Lunstad says a lack of connection is a risk factor in death, more so than smoking 16 cigarettes a day, being obese or lacking exercise. Other studies connected loneliness and social isolation with heart attacks, strokes, drug abuse, alcoholism, anxiety and depression.

Elderly men and women live longer when supported by the strong social relationship of families. Good friends are even more likely to be helpful. Even acquaintances make a positive difference. 

One author suggests the best way to make connections is through hobbies and interests. This is a worthwhile thought. We all know of the lonely woman who spends her time on the couch or the man who stands by the window, waiting for the kids to show up. Surely there is a role for them in the larger community.

Personal Observations

It has been my belief for some time that seniors who have an enjoyable and meaningful interest in their lives have an advantage. Being able to focus their time and creativity on at least one absorbing pastime, craft or sport gives purpose and feelings of satisfaction: a reason to look forward to the day, an opportunity or chance to join others, to share, to laugh and to create. These are not the lonely, they are the cherished. 

I had my eyes opened when volunteering at a local nursing home. In getting to know the residents, I wanted to raise a “safe” topic so I asked them about their favourite subject in school. One gentleman said it was arithmetic for him. “That topic gave me a lot of trouble,” I wailed. He smiled, enjoying my remembered distress and his level of comfort with the topic. This became a teasing point between us. I raised the topic with a former rancher. “I had no schooling,” he replied, “we boys had to be with the cattle, the girls had some schooling I believe.” Another man chimes in, “It was the same with me.” I noted the rancher had long pleasant visits with his daughter, the other walked the hallways endlessly. Was the walking helpful to him? Perhaps it took him back to long walks at his country home.

My first thought when I heard about this lack of literacy was, how does one pass the time in a nursing home when you don’t read? How do you entertain yourself?  An early education would serve them well now.

Family role models

My maternal grandfather was also without a formal education. There was a world- wide idea, circa 1940 and earlier that a perpetual motion machine would solve a lot of mechanical problems for mankind. He envisioned using some scrap materials he had collected and set aside to build such a machine. Wisely, he turned to woodworking as an existing skill he could use to create wooden play equipment for children. And he used a skill from his youth to make his later years more fulfilling.

Others in my world used lifelong passions to connect in a meaningful way. My mother quilted. She socialized at quilting bees and weekly meetings, taught if teaching was called for and led others in larger quilting endeavours. She thrived. My mother-in-law, as another positive example, loved cards, bridge in particular. This maintained good friendships and was something to look forward to when other strong skills such as food preparation for many were no longer needed. Another loved person in my life turned to gardening at her country home. She planted, watered, cultivated and nurtured and won landscaping awards for her efforts, quite an esteem booster late in life. These seniors too fall into the cherished category.

How can we encourage the younger generation?

Can we as a society encourage our young, with a view to being aged one day, to develop lifelong interests to take them through the last part of their lives in a cherished rather than a desolate way?

How can strong interests be maintained or altered to sustain us in our elder years? As strength wanes but interest persists perhaps the golfer can move to a PAR-3 course. There would be the same benefits: sunshine, camaraderie, exercise and competition. A good time enjoyed but less effort required.

On my local PAR-3 course I see women enjoying the game. They have shed all of the trappings—the expensive clubs and bag with a full range of clubs, the motorized cart. They carry three clubs in a hand-held frame, a putter, a five iron and a driver. That’s all they need to have a good time which culminates in coffee or lunch in the clubhouse post-game. One of my golf partners enjoys an extra plus to the game because she finds walking on the green grass eases foot, knee, and hip strain versus otherwise walking on concrete city streets. 

Adaptations to maintain social connection

There are many possibilities. I suggest a few more. Tennis players can move to pickle ball courts or perhaps take up lawn bowling. Readers can become memoirists as they record family history. Nurses can become volunteer workers—still caring for others but on a relaxed time frame and with less responsibility. Good Housekeeping.com suggests the lonely elder rescue a new pet. They then have comfortable, non-judgmental company and a buoyant feeling a good deed brings when a sweet life is saved. There is a great opportunity for individuals to sit on boards: library boards, health boards, school boards, using a lifelong set of skills and wisdom to help govern.

Good Housekeeping also recommends that the elder take part in any activity that puts one in a social environment on a regular basis but cautions to avoid the risk of relishing the comfort an alcoholic beverage brings.

We all know of the push to develop life-long learning. Perhaps we can extend that idea and make sure we incorporate the kind of learning that will serve us in our later years.

End Notes

Angus Reid Institute
Canada’s Non-Profit Foundation Committed to Independent Research.
A Portrait of social isolation and loneliness in Canada today.

U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness. The New York Times

PM launches Government’s first loneliness strategy.
Loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, Theresa May said today as she launched the first cross-Government strategy to tackle it.
The Prime Minister confirmed all GPs in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services by 2023.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad
Speaking of Psychology: Living in a Lonely World
APA. Streaming Audio

Study shows the more you hang out with your mom, the longer she’ll live.
Make sure you call grandma over for dinner tonight.
Good Housekeeping

6 things to do when dealing with loneliness at an old age.
Aging In Place

Read our article: Loneliness During COVID-19. A Dilemma for Seniors

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