July 5, 2019

Retirement and Loneliness: The Unhealthy Couple


Here is a shocking statistic: there is a 45% higher risk of dying too early if  someone is battling loneliness. Over 42 million Americans of all ages identify themselves as being lonely. This is not just a retirement issue. Smoking and obesity are just as risky to one's health as being perpetually lonely. 

Importantly, there is huge difference between loneliness and being alone. For many of us, being alone is actually a good thing, something we look forward to for at least part of our regular schedule. After a hectic career, raising several children, or moving on from a troubled marriage, being alone can be quite a blessing. Even in a happy relationship, you may function well with periods of alone time. If you have been single for your adult life, functioning well alone is simply what you do.

Engaging our own interests, satisfying our need to volunteer, reading, watching old movies, listening to music....that type of aloneness can be a very positive state. It  can be liberating to have so much control over how you spend your day.


Loneliness is quite a different condition. Usually it is not voluntary. Maybe it occurs after the death of a spouse or life-long friend. Adult children might live far away, making any together time rare. Having no real interests or passions, so each day becomes a chore to endure is a major contributor.

The type of loneliness one might experience can change. Bouts of it, lasting maybe a few days, weeks, or even months, are not as much of a health threat if there is an awareness that this condition will end. But, an open-ended sense that being lonely is when things start to press down on a person.

OK, so loneliness is a bad thing. What can be done about it? I spent a fair amount of time looking for something on the Internet that didn't present the standard answers: get out of the house more, meet new people, develop a hobby, etc, etc, etc. For those who struggle with perpetual loneliness I find these suggestions rather patronizing. They fall into the "eat your vegetables" type of advice: obvious and not very helpful. 


As I probed a little deeper, an important point emerged. Loneliness is a condition that is as much a mental or emotional state as a physical one. There can be an overwhelming feeling of rejection or hostility, real or imagined,  from others. If this is true, then forcing social contact or attempting social exposure will only worsen the problem. That feeling that "Bob" or "Mary" doesn't like me or approve of me will not vanish just by spending time with Bob or Mary.


Someone who lives in Midtown Manhattan can feel terribly alone. The standard advice to meet new people and experience new things would miss the point. This person is lonely not because he or she is actually alone. Rather, the perception of being rejected or cutoff must be tackled first.

This blog is not the place to dabble in psychological solutions. However, I found this distinction important because it opens up a new avenue of dealing with the problem. Finding out why someone feels loneliness may be the first step.

Here's where my lack of medical or physiological training exposes itself: If this is so, then doesn't the person crippled by serious loneliness have to resolve the problem from the inside first? Must the path forward start inside and move outward, rather than using external forces to change the internal dynamic?

If so, then the advice to join a club, meet new people, join a club, or even move to a new town, would be wrong. It is attempting to deal with the symptoms, not the cause.

If we know someone who suffers from chronic loneliness is there anything we can do to help? I don't know if this makes sense, but the thought that came to me would be begin a dialogue with the affected person, a dialogue that involves asking questions and getting that person to talk. Without being judgmental or armed with "solutions," maybe simply listening is a useful approach. 

Start slow and easy, with non-threatening questions and gentle conversations about childhood memories the two of you can share. Funny stories about relatives, or friends from elementary school might be a way to break the ice. 

It seems the goal is to get the lonely person to talk, converse with another person, and use memories to establish a positive baseline at some point in the past. Eventually, it is possible the person will begin to reveal hints and specifics about why he or she feels isolated and fearful of breaking the cycle.

If it were me involved in that probing, I would stop when some self-analysis seems to be occurring. I am not trained to offer solutions or action steps, unless the target of my care suggests something they might like to do. I would see my role as opening up some doors and windows, but not pulling that person through those spaces.

Am I even remotely correct in this approach? Do you have any personal experiences to share, either as someone who struggles with loneliness or someone who attempted to help another?

Loneliness is a serious fact of life for too many of our fellow retirees. Can we help?



24 comments:

  1. Loneliness is a problem with seniors but it cuts across all age groups. The link below is to a recent news broadcast I saw about loneliness among the young, middle aged, and seniors. There are some ideas on solutions but it seems to be a tricky problem to deal with.
    => https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1426586179798

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    1. You are quite right: loneliness is not an age-specific problem, though being a retirement blog I choose our age group as my focus.

      Anyone suffering from this problem deserves our attention and support, regardless of age. I will take a look at the report from Canada. Thanks for the link, David.

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  2. I agree with you, Bob. Loneliness is an emotional state vs the physical state of being alone. I've lived alone for ~25 yrs. I seldom feel lonely. When I do, it's usually because I'm tired and overwhelmed and emotional for some other reason; I label the feeling as lonely. Usually after some self-talk, mindfulness, exercise and sleep, the "loneliness" goes away. In my experience living with others, it was harder to get alone time than it is to get company now. I think of elderly people who outlive family members and friends. My 86 yr old mother was one of 5 kids. She married a man who was one of 3. She's outlived all of her siblings and only 2 sisters-in-law remain of those 16. Many neighbors and friends have passed away. I often wonder what it's like to be the survivor of them all?

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    1. Both my wife and I came from small families so we haven't experienced the quantity of loss your mom did. But, outliving family and friends must be difficult. That type of familial loneliness is understandable.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I hope other singles will see some paths to feeling better in the recap of your approach.

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  3. I see myself in what your wrote here: "...get out of the house more, meet new people, develop a hobby, etc, etc, etc. For those who struggle with perpetual loneliness I find these suggestions rather patronizing..."

    They are patronizing! After my husband died, I made it my mission to finds friends. I got very active in several clubs, met new people, got involved in whatever came along including a whole year volunteering and I didn't turn down a single opportunity. It didn't cure my loneliness, if anything it made it worse. I was dead tired busy but I found that relationships in senior circles to be more superficial than they were when we were younger and making work place and neighborhood friends. With newer friends I have a good time when we're together but the kind of closeness that cures loneliness is still elusive to me. I think it comes from a place where fewer and fewer people are in my life that have known me for decades, knew my accomplishments, knew the hardships I've overcome---see the whole me. Meeting people now, all they see is a elderly woman who is good for a few laughs, but then what? I'm too old to develop the kind of 'crock pot' relationships that take a long time to develop, to trust with my deepest thoughts. But here I am, spilling my guts on your blog. LOL

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    1. ....And I appreciate your frankness. The situation your describe is what "typical" advice misses. It is impossible to replicate a long period of experiences and memories with another person. Just being social doesn't cure loneliness, it simply amplifies the shallowness of the connections we have.

      Solutions? Except for my idea of being a listening post for a lonely person, I don't have time-proven answers. But, I am quite sure the canned responses are ineffectual for many.

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  4. Bob, Is loneliness as you've described it possibly really depression instead, just with a different label? And if so, would similar remediation approaches be appropriate? To me it seems they would, but I'm certainly no mental health expert, not even regarding my own(!).

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    1. That is a good point. It is entirely possible that, for some, loneliness can be a treatable medical condition. Someone who suffers from chronic loneliness certainly should consult a doctor.

      Personally I am not a big fan of popping pills to solve a problem that has other root causes. But, your point is well taken. A thorough physical and mental workup should be conducted if the person is willing. I would just caution that many physicians are trained to attack the symptoms and not the root cause. Loneliness seems like a rather complex issue.

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  5. We live in a small town in TN, the antithesis of Manhattan and cities like that, and one that is heavily composed of retirees who escaped the North and West. Many could be categorized as lonely, but those tend to be the ones who oftentimes will not take advantage of the myriad of options available to people to get out, meet people, do things creative and/or exciting, etc. When I see such people in certain settings I like to engage them and just have a conversation like real human beings. I have found that oftentimes people suffering from loneliness (or depression or whatever you want to call it) just need to have someone make the first move and they are willing to follow along.

    On an interesting side note, we have started to drop in at the local McD's regularly (you can eat healthier there, btw. Think the Artisan Chicken Sandwich with no sauce and it is low in calories and low in Weight Watchers points per Deb. Unfortunately they also have very good and expensive soft serve ice cream, but I digress.) There is an older woman there who we have started to engage in conversations with. Her husband died four years ago and to get out of her loneliness she started going to the McD's in town and is there a couple of times a day, talking with lots of other folks who are starting to go regularly, and she is doing great per her own words. I find it fascinating to watch people in this setting after reading an article from someone on how McDs have become almost a local community center for many to gather at, particularly older people. It helps that the workers in our town, almost all very young, are extremely courteous to the people (I like to engage the workers as well since most everyone likes to talk about themselves, and there are people like me who enjoy hearing their stories).

    Where am I going with this? While I pointed out initially that those suffering from loneliness need to put themselves out there, others who are not in that boat need to recognize it and do what we can to engage them as well and perhaps help bring them out of their shell. As human beings we all need to engage and interact at some times, so working it from both angles can help a lot.

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    1. "Inexpensive ice cream at McD's, not expensive. Sorry about that.

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  6. Bravo ChuckY, you sound like a terrific person.

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    1. You and Deb are doing what all of us could do: engage with others who appear to want human contact. BTW, thanks about the tip for healthy choices and McDs!

      What can we do for those who are lonely but don't have the courage or motivation to get out? I wish I knew.

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  7. I'm going to suggest that rather than loneliness being a symptom of depression, the opposite is more likely true. And blaming people for their inability to reach out, whether there are no people to reach out to or out of fear is unfair. Yes, my town may have fifty things for seniors going on. But even for the most outgoiong, confident senior, walking through that door is often a huge step. Imagine what it is ike for everyone else. So yes, telling people to get out and go to the meetup is often patrionising, even if meant well.

    often the people suggesting we put ourselves out there are coupled, familied, super outgoing types who throw such advice out there as an afterthought. and I say that as someone who is most definitely not an introvert.

    It would also be a mistake to always include interaction as alleviating lonliness. After my husband died, I was forced to go out. My son was a senior in high school and because he was supported by his friends continued his activiites, many of which of course required a parent-from homecoming Saturday awards to graduation. I was still extremely lonely, even with another person in the house, and in fact as some know, ate and spent money for a year because I was so lonely.

    Since then I have made many friends, none of them BFF types.I actually enjoyed living alone and have the knowledge that I have family close. I have turned into one of those people who likes singlhood and the independence. I'm not looking for a retirement community for support at least not any time soon. But it has to be said, the older you get the harder it is to make friends. Period. and that is usually true if we are married or not, and I don't mean "happy hour, get cocktails" kind of friends. I am fortunate that I am part of a social community with people who have things in common and with whom I regularly do things together-but few of them, if any are of the "I'm terrified to get a second breast exam" type of friends if you will. In my case my family and kids have always been my best friends so it's not as much of an issue.

    It does also have to be said, liked or not, that the reason I survived lonliness were the friends in my spiritual community..or communiities. That was the only community where others reached out to me, without my always needing to take the first step, and the few people with whom I would share that "fear of" thing. It's not about God as such, but rather that there is a certain kowledge that everyone else in the room is exactly where you are ( for lack of a better phrase) , and unfortunately I don't know of too many non spiritual communities where that is true. Which is a shame.

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    1. Knowing your personal story, Barb, I believe you bring real experience and insight to this topic. Your thoughts are important for all of us to think about.

      Personally, I agree with your assessment of the power of a spiritual community to help. Notice I didn't say "religious" community because it and spiritual aren't necessarily synonymous. But, a group of like-minded people can bring a sense of safeness where a lonely person might feel more comfortable in relaxing and bonding.

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  8. Hi Bob! Definitely a complicated issue. So many ways to look at it. Because I have always been self-employed, worked at home, and am child free, I have always had to make a strong effort to make friends and connect with others. Most people make friends at work or through their children and perhaps that is why when they retire and their children leave it becomes such a challenge. It takes effort to reach out and connect and if or when you are feeling depressed, that makes it very difficult. I imagine in some ways it is very much like dating. Finding someone you care about, and can be close to, takes a while and most people don't make it a priority. I also tend to believe that it is a current cultural problem as well. Social clubs, volunteering and religious organizations used to provide many ways to get involved and meet people. Now so many of us can "comfortably" sit in our own homes for hours/days/weeks with a TV and a computer. With social media it is tempting to think we are connecting but that's just not the same. Again, it takes effort but not all of us want to do (or are able to do) what it takes. Anyway, that's just my thoughts today! ~Kathy

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    1. Maybe "social media" should be renamed as "anti-social media." So much of it separates us from others.

      Like you, I was self-employed for much of my career. I can mingle with the best of them, but find the effort to make true friends difficult. My wife and immediate family form my most important community, though I do have friends who I enjoy spending time with. They are just not the type of relationship that evolved into a deep, sharing everything type of friendship.

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  9. I think a lot of loneliness has been created by society. It is not just families living far apart, focusing on work relationships which are not sustained after retirement, the large number of singles, outliving your contemporaries, the anonymity of suburbs and large cities, the alienation caused by extreme political expression, and so on. It is the viewpoint pushed by all kinds of media and then incorporated into people's attitudes that the number of friends you have determines your worth as a human being. That only close, lifelong friends count, not casual friends or activity-based friendships that might come and go. That only extroverts have value. That being alone or even single means you are lonely and friendless and someone not worth being friends with. That being independent (not relying on others) is paramount, you can give help but you cannot receive it. Even having a simple conversation with an adult child is a minefield where what you say might be construed as advice, a very bad thing to do, and discussing a problem you are having turns you into a burden on them. Fewer and fewer people seem to know how to be friendly or considerate, engage in simple chitchat or even smile and say hello anymore, those little things that give us confidence to engage in higher levels of social interaction in other settings.

    I don't think any of the advice about how to make friends is patronizing. The problem is that you will probably be disappointed and discouraged by thinking we can just go out and create friendships that way. Maybe we could lower our expectations and hope for acquaintances, or people to do things with, or just people who recognize us and ask how are you, and mean it. These interactions can make us feel a lot less "on our own" in the world, if that is something you want or need. If a friendship comes later, fine, but it doesn't have to be the only goal that matters, or be what determines our self-worth.

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    1. As someone who has never suffered from loneliness (except for a few months at basic training in the Army), I am glad this post has generated several different viewpoints. I can only learn from those with real life feedback and experiences on the ways to approach this situation.

      I like your clarification on friends versus acquaintances and the role each may play in one's life. As noted above, I am more an acquaintance-type person.

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  10. There is another group of those who are lonely and depressed and it is the group living with a spouse or partner who has dementia. Sure they can get out for several hours by hiring a paid caregiver (many can't afford that) but at the end of that time they are back at home with a person who can't relate to them. It is also a situation in which there is no end in sight and only knowing that it will get worse and worse before it ends in death. Many cannot afford placement for that partner as they make too much to be Medicaid eligible but not enough to afford $7000 to $11000 a month. Where am I going with this? If you know someone who is home with a demented person do not forget them no matter how uncomfortable it is for you. Call them just to talk or stop by to visit or ask if you can sit with the ill person so that your friend can get out for even an hour or two. There is loneliness from being alone but the loneliness felt by being alone with someone who is "not there" is worse.

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    1. That is a very important point and one that completely slipped under my radar. Each of us probably knows someone who is a caregiver for another who has dementia or Alzheimer's. Giving them support and a break would be real acts of love.

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  11. When I was in my twenties, I was only invited to someone's house if it involved spending money. It was so bad that when a "friend" from high school called my mother to get my phone number she told them not to contact me if it was about money. She called anyway and it was to get a donation for her sister. I told her no and quit spending money at any of the parties and of course all the invitations ended after that. I have never really had friends at any age. I have always traveled alone, gone to the movies alone etc. but I am rarely lonely. I have never let the lack of friends stop me from enjoying life. We all have different ways of living our lives. Being alone does not make you lonely.

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    1. You are exactly on target: being alone does not make you lonely. Unless there are issues like clinical depression involved, feeling lonely is more of an internal decision or attitude. You seem to have a solid handle on what it takes to function well and enjoy your life.

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  12. After my first husband passed away, I often felt very lonely. I worked full-time and was at home with my young children on the evenings and weekends. Although I loved my children dearly, I missed having a close loving relationship with another adult. And yet I know I was lucky because I had several really good friends in the community who made a point of getting together with me, and including me in parties etc, even though I was no longer in a couple. And my parents and siblings who lived within a half-day’s drive were great companions and supports for me and my kids as were my long distance friend who phoned regularly. Nevertheless, I know what loneliness feels like. For me, part of the issue was that I didn’t want to “impose on” others who were busily engaged in their own family and social lives, nor did I like it when people felt sorry for me/ pitied me.

    Jude

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    1. Thanks, Jude, for adding your experience and insight. I would guess the "pity/feel sorry for" feelings are a strong disincentive for many in this situation.

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