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Living Long Shouldn’t Mean Living Lonely

April 23, 2015

“Life’s an awfully lonesome affair,” observed Canadian artist Emily Carr.

“You come into the world alone and you go out of the world alone yet it seems to me you are more alone while living than even going and coming.” Feeling alone and being lonely are things all of us have experienced. Yet there is a kind of loneliness that cuts even deeper than feeling alone. Social isolation — the lack of meaningful relationships and human contact and connections — is a devastating affliction, with impacts ranging from depression to accelerated aging and the risk of early death. It isn’t hard to understand that older persons are especially vulnerable.

Older people face multiple risk factors: a partner’s death, disability, chronic illness, reduced or unstable income, loss of vision or hearing, frailty, fear of falling and fear of forgetting. We see the impact already. In the United States, according to AARP, nearly one in three people in their 60s report chronic loneliness. In the U.K., nearly half of all older people rely on the television or a pet as their primary form of company.

In my country, Canada, one in five people say they don’t participate frequently in any social activity; and according to a report by the National Seniors Council of Canada, men over the age of 80 have the population’s highest suicide rate. And the risk of suffering will only intensify with demographic change. In Canada, projections suggest the number of people aged 65 and above could double in the next quarter century. Beyond the painful toll on individuals, communities lose out too when older adults are disempowered, disregarded, and disengaged. So, what can we do about it? How can we replace isolation with social connectedness? As much as specific programs and policies, we need a change of perspective.

1) Rethink What we Value; Reclaim Bedrock Values.
The first step is rethinking what we value, and what that says about our values. I worry that in headlong pursuit of prosperity and progress, societies risk losing touch with many of the things that matter most. After all, in many Western countries, we venerate the new. Where do the retired, frail, or slow fit in to our fast-paced, achievement-focused way of life? At best, our culture encourages people to cling to youth as long as possible. At worst, it sends a message to older persons that their worth in the world’s eyes is vastly if not totally diminished. But what if we looked to traditional wisdom to help us cope in our brave new world? What if we replaced negative views of old age with enduring values of human dignity and respect? Among Canadian First Nations and many Indigenous societies, Elders are revered as knowledge keepers and play a central role in every aspect of community life. Imagine if we reframed our perceptions of older persons from “past their prime” to “wise and experienced”? Would we seek out their opinions? Would we listen to them more attentively? Might our communities be closer, our societies stronger, as a result?

2) Adopt a Mutuality Mindset.
A second aspect of shifting from isolation to connectedness is adopting a mutuality mindset. We should replace dichotomies such as giver and taker, helper and helpless, contributor and beneficiary with recognition that connectedness is a reciprocal experience, where reaching out and being touched go — literally and figuratively — hand in hand. You can see the power of this perspective in action at Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Illinois — a self-described “intentional intergenerational community” — where foster children and their families, adoptive parents of special needs children, and older adults live side-by-side. Children get security, supportive neighbours, and a caring environment where, as one child put it, “Everyone is my grandparent.” Seniors enjoy below-market rent in exchange for staying engaged and volunteering, from tutoring to cooking to babysitting and more. Hope Meadows brings new richness to the idea of extended family, where children, parents, and seniors find meaning and joy through one another. Another inspiring model is Germany’s multi-generational community centres, where services for the old and young are combined under one roof. Retirees babysit for young families. Teenagers teach older people to use technology. Kindergartners join sing-alongs with gray-haired seniors with dementia. Similarly, college students can live rent-free at the Humanitas retirement home in Deventer, The Netherlands, keeping the elderly residents company through shared activities from cooking to shopping to learning how to use computers. In multi-generational arrangements like these, everyone has something to give and something to gain; and the different groups take care of each other.

3) Understand That the “Other” Is Us
Finally, we must resist easy stereotypes of older people and negative assumptions about aging. Such stigmas can inhibit older people from seeking support, and undermine our collective willingness to foster lifelong community engagement. We all have an interest in improving seniors’ lives. It’s our own lives at stake. Aging is a human condition. Indeed, it’s what it means to be alive. As sociologist Anne Karpf eloquently argued in the New York Times, we start growing older from our very first breath, and we keep growing until our very last; thus, “Age resistance is a futile kind of life resistance.” The elderly are not the “other”; they are us — and embracing that truth will help us all to stay connected in the circle of belonging, all our lives.

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