Aging Our Way

Lessons for living, from age 85 and beyond

Actively Guarding Against Loneliness

How to connect with others, while protecting your independence

Just this morning, a married middle-aged woman admitted to me that she experiences loneliness. "It is most severe when I am at the mall," she said, "or in a crowd."

A new report discussed today in the New York Times, finds that about 13 percent of older adults (60+) say they are often lonely, while 30 percent say loneliness is sometimes an issue.

Loneliness may have nothing to do with living alone; 62.5 percent of older adults who reported being lonely in this new study were married. And this may have very little to do with age; the suicide rates for older men are roughly the same as for teenage boys.

Whether one is living alone or in a shared living situation, guarding against loneliness takes skill, reminds Steven Kurutz, writing for the New York Times. And cultivating this skill is important, because, if you don't, there can be serious health consequences.

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In a culture where independence is the ultimate in maturity and success, more and more people are "going solo," according to sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The surprising news he unearthed is this: amidst the obsession with independence, singles work extra hard to be social.

From what I have seen in my research, a good number of Americans in the 85+ age group are increasingly "aging in place" and thus living alone. And yet, despite what we might expect, they too have strategies to actively guard against loneliness. They cultivate daily routines that animate their days. They change it up here and there. They guard their privacy, and enjoy their social lives.

Consider these individuals and their strategies:

One nonagenarian, Ann, volunteered for decades at a nursing home, pushing wheelchairs and making conversation. She probably thought "Someday I may end up there." And she did. And she loved it, because they all knew her name.

Another nonagenarian, Glenn, told his pastor he would like to share his home with someone who needs a place to live, for free. As of today, he is currently on his second boarder. The first was a single mother and kindergarten teacher. The second is a struggling actor.

And then there's Johanna, a centenarian who loves sitting on her porch, who soon became friendly with all of her neighbors. One day, she called a neighbor and asked if he wouldn't mind taking her to the furniture store. "I'm tired of looking at my old couch; I need a new one." And so they took an afternoon to go furniture shopping together.

There are many different approaches to coping with loneliness. I learned this, as well as the importance of taking time for oneself, from the elders I have followed for the past 5 years.

But I also see how they crave human contact, as we all do. Amazingly, they and others manage to create opportunities for contact - by starting informal coffee klatches, chatting at the gym, reaching out to neighbors, tweeting, enjoying doctors visits, or becoming a regular at a local diner.

I have come to see that these strategies for connection are a key ingredient in long, healthy, meaningful lives. 

It is okay to admit to loneliness. We all experience it, like my friend who feels this most intensely in a crowd. The question is, what do you do next?

What are your favorite strategies for connection?

Next time: One lonely student far from home makes a lifelong connection...

Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond.

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Meika Loe, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University.

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