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Isolation, Loneliness and Solitude in Old Age

Posted Dec 12 2012 8:30am

category_bug_journal2.gif Last week, on a post titled Youthiness in Old Age , Monica Devine, who blogs at Between Two Rivers , left this comment:

“Speaking of contrarian, I've always wondered about this: I'm sure it's true that socializing with family and friends prolongs and enhances the life span and experience of aging for old people, but, could this notion be over-rated?

“Maybe being older generates a desire to go inward, be less social. Is it so bad to want to be alone, to enjoy silence and eschew so much socializing?”

Well, you don't have to convert me to Monica's way of thinking. I like my friends. I enjoy lunches, dinners and other events with them. And I seem to be spending increasing amounts of time working with like-minded people on various elder issues in my community.

But when those engagements are done I am always eager to be home alone (if you don't count the cat). Compared to a lot of people I have known, I seem to require more solitude than some others.

And that word – solitude – makes the difference at any age because it is almost always a personal choice. When being alone is unwanted, however – usually labeled isolation or loneliness – then there is no doubt it can negatively affect health and I think it is a condition more often found in elders than younger people.

There are numerous reasons I'm sure you could name on your own. The late geriatrician, Robert N. Butler, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, named some of them:

“We cannot underestimate the disruptive effects of loneliness and anxiety upon the physical and mental health of the isolated person...” he writes.

“Social and personal isolation is difficult...for old people, imposed as it often is by external forces like widowhood, the death of friends, mandatory retirement, poverty, physical and mental impairments and transportation difficulties.”

In a more recent book, The Longevity Prescription, Butler notes that people older than 65 commit about 19 percent of suicides in the U.S. Further, he tells us, depression – often a result of unwanted social isolation – has long been identified as one of the major causes.

I am honored to have known Dr. Butler and I don't doubt a word of what he says about this. Nevertheless, I believe there is more to it, that some of us are not unhappy to find ourselves more often alone in old age than when we were younger, and to even seek our solitude.

But as Monica's comment implies, we who enjoy a lot of time alone are often seen as suspect by the culture at large. Look at how negative are the words we have to describe such people: hermit, recluse, loner, lone wolf, introvert, outsider. It's not far from there to believe anyone like that must be lonely and therefore in danger of illness, even early death.

Not true. Not always.

Also, Monica is on to something when she writes, “Maybe being older generates a desire to go inward, be less social.” Carl Jung's seven tasks of aging , which come to many elders quite naturally (without even knowing who Jung was), pretty much demand introspection and, therefore, solitude:

• Facing the reality of aging and dying
• Life review
• Defining life realistically
• Letting go of the ego
• Finding new rooting in the self
• Determining the meaning of one's life
• Rebirth – dying with life

And, for me, there is one more plus on the side of solitude: being social exhausts me nowadays. After a meal or visit with friends, even those I love and adore, I not only want to be alone for awhile, I need it to restore myself.

It would be a mitzvah for all of us to be alert to signs of isolation and loneliness in friends and neighbors and to help when we can. But we should also be careful to make the distinction between those who are unhappy or depressed about it and others who enjoy their solitude.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary Hertslet: Home Sweet Home

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