Lifting seldom-heard voices in order to re-examine traditional social constructs and to cultivate love and empathy

Senior Voices Part 2 – Loneliness

As I previously researched loneliness and learned about that condition I often ran into information about the elderly and loneliness. It happened often enough that I purposely didn’t mention it much in my loneliness series. Instead, I decided that Senior Citizens needed their own series. Now I’m discovering that Seniors need several topical series. The vast array of topics involved overwhelmed and intimidated me to the point of silence for several months. My apologies.

As we age, loneliness becomes a more tangible risk. Denver’s Age Matters Report identified social-emotional health as an important issue for Seniors. As discussed in my Loneliness Series, being part of a “tribe” creates a sense of belonging and safety. These feelings of belonging and safety wards off stress for any individual. We’ve long known that stress is a major contributor to health issues. Additionally, having a “tribe” can help encourage a person to go to the doctor if there is a health complaint, or make sure that their tribe members have heat, water, food, medications. We keep an eye out for each other, creating a sense of safety.

Many Seniors live alone and so might not have “tribe” members who visit often. Two of the Seniors I spoke with shared things that should be concerning to their “tribe”, if they have one. Lon, 67, said he thinks he eats well enough but that he probably drinks too much. Kenneth, 78, says he has ice cream and Pepsi for breakfast, McDonalds often, and frozen “TV” dinners the rest of the time. Would having more social relationships and checking on our Seniors nudge them away from these bad habits? It certainly couldn’t hurt.

“As an Elder, loss is constant,” says Iris, 72. “First your parents, then your siblings, then your friends. The more years you’re blessed with, the fewer people you have around.” Iris says she has found most people her age are “horrified” of death and have “fear of not going to heaven.” Some are even grappling with whether heaven even exists.

Another loss that Iris talks about is being invisible. “You know you’re old when you used to turn heads and no one ever even looks at you anymore. You become invisible.” I personally witnessed this when I went boating with her and another one of her Senior friends. As her friend, who had a cane, stepped from the boat to the dock a boat full of young people rammed their boat into the dock jarring the dock. A few minutes later, the same group of young people almost ran the same lady over with their truck while pulling their boat out of the water. Iris reiterated, “When you get old people don’t see you.”

For Elders without children, or with distant or estranged children there are additional risk factors. Children can provide someone who checks in on a Senior. Lon, who never had any children knows that social health is important. He makes sure that he has social interaction through dance classes, language classes, and by having lunch with his CPA about once a month to complain about politics.

Lon is still looking for a partner for companionship and says he’s been through divorce recovery therapy. He says that relationships are a mystery to him. He learned through these courses that you date people like your parents and you date the same type of person over and over again. He also laments that there are not as many choices in women at this age.

Increased social isolation risk factors go up when the Senior is part of a marginalized group such as a person of color, an immigrant (because of language barriers), economically challenged populations, rural Seniors, disabled groups, and/or being part of the LGBTQ population. These populations often lack adequate social support before they become Elders. When a person enters old age without sufficient social support resources to begin with, things can decline even more quickly once their ability to participate socially outside of their home diminishes.

Gil Asakawa, Marketing Communications Consultant at AARP, states that isolation is the number one killer of Senior Citizens. AARP has, in fact, created a report titled “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50.” The report states isolation creates an environment where Seniors [and anyone for that matter] have more illnesses, often miss routine medical care, and are often re-hospitalized. Additionally, socially isolated individuals are more likely to have suicidal ideation. All these factors lead to a trend of higher national healthcare costs (pp 19,20).

We often see Seniors working at various retailers offering carts or sale fliers at the door. One way for Seniors to avoid social isolation is to work. Since the age-expectancy is rising and Seniors are in better health for a longer portion of their lives, working in retirement has become an option for many. It not only supplies them with social interactions and purpose, it also gives them a little extra income, which might be needed.

Getting a job can be difficult. Seniors sometimes suffer ageism. If a Senior wants to return to their previous profession, things may have changed a lot and the younger people there might consider it a liability to hire a Senior or think that they are “set in their ways” or “disconnected from technology.” These are real issues that often Seniors face as they investigate jobs outside of greeting at the doors of Target.

Julia, 67, doesn’t believe in ageism. She believes that age is not a deterrent to getting a job as an Elder. She believes that the people who suffer ageism are afflicted with a negative attitude. Julia adds, “My brother is 57, so much younger, and he’s falling apart because of his negative attitude.”

However, Julia adds, “Since I’m older, my career is over. I don’t have to worry about career advancement, kissing asses, driving to work in snow. A job verses a career are two different things. A career is not as fun, you have to put up with bs and you’re more worried about money.” At this age, Julia says she has the freedom to move from job to job because her life is set up and she’s no longer focusing on building a career. If the job is no longer fun, she doesn’t need to stay. It is notable that Julia doesn’t believe in ageism, but she is also not developing a career at this point in her life. Sometimes Seniors who are working on second or even third careers can run up against ageism as they attempt to enter a new market. It’s also notable that Julia has aged very well and looks 15 to 20 years younger than she is.

Another way for Seniors to continue to be social is through volunteering. As people age they often have a natural desire to give back to the community they love. Volunteering can meet a variety of needs including a feeling of purpose and friendship. There are always volunteer opportunities and there are even organizations who organize volunteer opportunities such as churches, Volunteers of America, and municipal job boards.

Transportation limitations contribute to social isolation and can be a difficulty for many Seniors. Not being able to get to family members, church, exercise class, or whatever social activities that a Senior might have participated in before they became less mobile, creates more risk for isolation. The symbol to many Seniors of the loss of their independence is when they have to hang up their car keys. “The inner me is still 17 but the outer me can’t do the same things. I hope that when the time comes to hang up the keys I can do so graciously,” says Iris, 72.

While cities usually have public transportation, many Seniors do not know how to use it or find the fares expensive and confusing. Many Seniors state that they are open to using public transportation, but they need help learning how to use the system. Denver’s Age Matters Report notes that there needs to be an outreach to Elders to teach them how to use public transportation so that our Seniors can get out and about and continue to lead a vital and purposeful life with some independence (pp 18 – 21).

Just as I encouraged readers in Loneliness Part 3 to reach out to those who are lonely, it is vastly important that we find time in our schedule to include our Seniors in our social circle. Social isolation is difficult for people at any age. But with Seniors it is even more important because of their vulnerability. As mentioned in the Loneliness Series, you could be saving their life.

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