Loneliness is a big problem at any age and in retirement with a loss of self-worth accompanied with stress related to financial security, loneliness can be a serious problem.
Social isolation and loneliness are well known as causes of depression, mental health problems and physical illness. They are conditions usually associated with older people, who may experience the profoundly isolating effects of retirement, loss of a partner and children moving away.
There have been several cases where loneliness has led to depression, high blood pressure and other psychosomatic illnesses. Those retirees who are married at least have a companion but for those retirees who have remained single or have separated or have lost their spouse, the problems of loneliness get compounded very significantly.
Loneliness is something that often creeps up on people in retirement. Loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity, according to researchers who found that feelings of isolation can have a devastating impact on older people.
Even the most gregarious and sociable of people can find themselves in the unfamiliar territory of feeling lonely and isolated, and this in turn can lead to depression. Often loneliness comes from the death of a spouse, the loss of close friends, or the development of a debilitating illness – all things that we don’t want to think about, but unfortunately are inevitable as we get older.
Retirees sometimes go through multiple changes in their lives that contribute to loneliness in a relatively short period of time.
- Adult children move out of the house and sometimes far away from home
- Around the same time, people lose their ready-made social circle at work. Most people have not taken the trouble to create a social network outside work while they were working and to try and break into an existing social network post retirement is challenging to say the least.
- It is not uncommon to lose a partner at some point during the later years of life. Loss of a spouse is seen as one of the top traumas a human being experiences in one’s life.
People who are socially comfortable and well-connected may easily make new friends, but if you are socially awkward and have traditionally found it difficult to make friends you need to find structured activities that will help you to create social contacts.
It only takes a little effort to make new friends and stave off those feelings of loneliness that can be so damaging to your mental health in retirement. What’s more, there is growing evidence that social isolation is connected with an increased risk of physical ill health as well, so combating loneliness may also improve your health too.
An increasing number of senior retirees have only got their television for company and this is a serious challenge that we need to address. Is there no way that we can engage with these elderly citizens so that they live the remaining years in contact with a few people?
“Human contact is my oxygen. I try to keep myself occupied but the chance of human contact is more important than anything to me. The touch of another human being is more so” said one person when he was talking to me.
“It makes me feel sad. I no longer feel of use to the society but much of the time I mask my feelings with a mindset to keep going. People tell me that I am lucky to have my memories but this doesn’t help. I want to make the most of my life now” said another.
After speaking to several very elderly retirees, I found that they missed the all-important social contact with their friends and family. As they grew older and as one or both of them slowed down and were not able to reciprocate the social niceties that had done all their lives, they could see that gradually they were dropped from their social circle and the invitations dropped off. It reached a stage where they would see no one except their domestic staff for many weeks at a time.
We have read so many cases of police finding the body of a senior citizen in their home when the neighbours complained of a “foul smell” from the apartment. Nothing could emphasize the seriousness of loneliness of an elderly retiree than a person who has died alone with no one to attend to them for possibly, several days.
Loneliness is contagious. Older adults who feel lonely are more prone to behave in ways that may cause other people to not want to be around them.
A recent survey revealed that while only 10% of Indian seniors living in joint families felt isolated, nearly 68% of those living with nuclear families reported loneliness. The survey also found that older people living in rural areas have more social interactions and feel the pain of loneliness less in comparison to the urban elderly. It was also found that older Indian men are more prone to isolation than older women.
Based on discussions with some care givers to the elderly and infirm, the following were some of the points that came up to tackle loneliness.
- Stay Social – Maintain long-standing relationships to combat loneliness. Reconnect with friends with whom you have lost touch and establish regular routines with friends near you. Join social networking websites to get re-acquainted with people from your past. Long-standing relationships are more beneficial in fighting loneliness than new friendships.
Senior citizens living in condominiums have managed to find a way to stay social and several resident welfare associations have provided for specific areas where the senior citizens can sit together for a cup of coffee every morning and evening.
- Explore New Interests – As a retiree, you probably have less commitments and obligations. Take advantage of this to explore your interests, whether you are volunteering at the local school, joining a book club, playing an instrument or writing.
The activity is not as important as the meaningful interactions you will have with other people as you develop a whole new circle of friends of all ages, who like you, have a similar interest.
- Stay Positive – Talking to yourself to challenge your pessimistic or negative thoughts has been found to be very effective. Perceived loneliness is often due to incorrect or irrational interpretations of current life situations. Identify these thoughts and argue against them, utilizing contrary evidence. If this is difficult or you need assistance, you can work with a counsellor or with a friend who you can trust.
- Get a Pet – A dog or a cat have been known to be great companions for lonely people. If you and your spouse like a pet and are willing to take on the responsibility of looking after another living being then bring a pet into your home.
Mother Teresa had once said that “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty”.
While the developed economies have understood the loneliness needs of the retirees and the senior citizens, we have yet to get an appreciation of their needs in India. We assume that once a person has retired, he / she will be happy with their television sets watching “serials” and have some of their friends for company. We need to watch and listen more. Older people often claim they are fine, and they don’t want to be a burden but most people need human contact.
Older people are a treasure and should be treated as such.