After the age of 60 there are so many things in life that conspire to make you lonely. The death of a spouse or old friend, separation from your children as they move on to have families of their own, the loss of a home or a long-time community. When I was in college in the 80’s, I worked for a semester at a small nursing home in Hyattsville. The residents were well cared for and the nursing staff was kind, but even so, the loneliness was palpable. It was the woman who, every week, waited patiently on the front porch dressed impeccably in her Sunday-go-to-Meeting clothes- her hat perched smartly on her head, her white gloves neatly folded over her straw pocketbook. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the family that never came. And it was the gentleman who had survived his eight brothers and three sisters and missed the fellowship of swapping tall stories about the good old days of favorite fishing holes and barn dances in rural Maryland. Every soul in that old house ached together while still alone. I always thought that they were dying of loneliness, and now research shows that I may have been right.
A study just released in the Archives of Internal Medicine this week examined the relationship between loneliness, functional decline and death in adults over 60 years of age in the United States and found that not only is loneliness a common source of distress, suffering and impaired quality of life in older persons, it is a predictor of functional decline and even death.
The study, part of the national Health and Retirement Study, followed 1,604 participants with a baseline assessment in 2002 and follow up assessments every two years until 2008. Subjects were asked three questions: Do you feel left out? Do you feel isolated? Do you lack companionship? Participants who answered “hardly ever” to all three questions were rated as not lonely, but participants who answered “some of the time” or “often” to any of the three questions were categorized as lonely. The study then tracked their time of death and functional decline over the six year period, measuring decline in multiple ways, including difficulty with activities of daily living, and reduced mobility.
The study indicates that people over the age of 60 who felt lonely had a 45 percent higher risk of death than those categorized as not lonely. The lonely people also were more likely to face functional decline including limited mobility and greater difficulty in performing basic tasks like grooming and housekeeping. The study concluded that loneliness is an important contributor to human suffering- especially in elderly persons.
The other day, my fiercely independent mother told me that three separate people had offered to help her load her groceries into the car. She joked that she must’ve looked especially bad, and I wondered if it was due to the cheery green choose civility reminders. Joking aside, how wonderful it was for those strangers to reach out in kindness! Perhaps it is through connections- even as small as those- that we develop the cure for loneliness.