I decided to spend Christmas volunteering at a resident home for low-income elderly people. (While it would be nice to receive some social credit for this act of kindness, the truth is that it has been years since I have volunteered my time, but due to a number of mix-ups in my intended holiday plans, I found myself alone.) I spent much time talking to one resident, Mary, who was perhaps the oldest of all the residents at dinner that day. She was certainly the most outspoken. Mary had outlived all her relatives and was eager to reflect on her life and share her feelings of loneliness with me. Her last surviving brother had recently died and because of her poor health she did not attend his funeral. She lamented that there was no one to attend his funeral and that there would be no one to attend hers.

Many elderly around the world live in a near constant state of isolation, left alone inside their homes engaging in very little meaningful contact with other people. Nearly one in two elderly Americans reports feeling lonely. An estimated quarter of a million elderly Britons spent this Christmas alone. In Japan, kodokushi or lonely deaths, where bodies lay undiscovered for days, weeks or even months, is a growing problem among the elderly. Paradoxically, most kodokushi deaths happen in urban areas. The hard truth is that as we get older, we may find ourselves surrounded… by no one. It is no wonder that depression is a serious problem among the elderly.

It is unlikely that social isolation and loneliness were problems for our early human ancestors. It is not because our ancestors didn’t get old; they did. Many people think that because hunter-gatherer life expectancy is low (around 35), that hunter-gatherers (and accordingly, our ancestors) didn’t live long. But many hunter-gatherers live well into their seventies and sometimes eighties. Life expectancy is low because mortality in early life is common.

In the hunter-gatherers I study, the Hadza, kodokushi would never happen. If Mary were a Hadza, she would not worry about the lack of attendees at her funeral. She also would not be left alone so much. This is because the fabric of Hadza society is built on interdependence and high levels of connectedness. Apart from lone hunting trips, there is very little time spent alone in hunter-gatherer life. Women forage and process food together in groups and men sit together during the day when they are not hunting. Individuals who are too old to hunt or forage will stay back at the camp watching over the children. At night there is singing and dancing for all camp members. Even sleep occurs in close proximity to one another, often out in the open with few physical barriers in place that would afford individuals privacy.

You also do not need to be biologically related to someone to call him your brother or father. People take care of each other like family. Food and wealth are shared fairly equally among all individuals. And while many elders contribute more than their share of calories until late life, there is a social net in place in the event that they are unable to care for themselves. Even decisions are almost always made as a group and the elderly continue to have a voice.

We didn't evolve to be islands.

Humans like to be around other humans, a preference handed down to us from our ancestors. We evolved to live in groups because of the benefits it afforded in terms of survival and reproduction. Some of the many benefits of group living include minimized risk of starvation and increased protection from predators. Individuals who decided to live alone would not live long or produce many offspring. In short, we didn’t evolve to be islands. Thus, it is not surprising to see why it makes us sad to be alone. This is evolution’s safeguard against social isolation.

It stands to reason that loneliness and depression are both normal responses to the modern circumstance in which many elderly find themselves. So as we ring in this New Year, let us borrow from past practices and devote some of our time to be with those most vulnerable.

About the Author

Coren Apicella, Ph.D.

Coren Apicella, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

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