The elderly population is large and growing. In 1987, 8.5 million elderly lived alone; by 2020, 13.3 million elderly will live alone. More than 6.5 million, or 77%, of all elderly living alone are women. The percentage of older women living alone exceeds that of men in each age group, but women become progressively more likely than men to live alone with age. Among those over 85, 52% of women live alone compared to 29% for men. Widowhood is by far the most common situation for older women who live alone. Between the ages of 65 and 74, 77% of women living alone are widows, as are 88% of those over 75. Men who live alone are far more likely to be divorced or never to have married. This phenomenon occurs because women tend to marry men older than themselves, and because women live longer than men.
feelings of loneliness
strike over one-third of
all Americans at least
I will never forget the time that I walked into a hospital and heard the unhappy cry of an old man, "Nurse, I'm lonely." Over and over again he expressed his need in heart-rending sobs that touched my soul in a unforgettable way. I asked the nurse on duty, "What's wrong with the old man?" She replied, "He has outlived all his relatives and no one comes to see him anymore; and I can't spend all day holding his hand."
Over the years, I have visited hundreds of retirement homes. Some are very well-run, caring organizations, handling older people effectively who are in every state of functioning. Other convalescent hospitals are snake pits from hell--the range of hospital and retirement homes extends from awesome to awful. We who are advanced in years must take the time to consider where we will live, if we live too long to take care of ourselves.
If we wisely prepare in advance, we can select a home that does have some people who can take the time to hold our hand. When my Aunt Evelyn was just 60 years old, her husband, Lee, died unexpectedly. My aunt soon sold her property and moved to an American Baptist life-care retirement home in Seattle, Washington. Our whole family was aghast that Auntie would retire so early in life.
However, the life-care facility furnished Auntie with a nice room where she could do her own cooking; or, she could eat in the cafeteria whenever she wanted to. In addition, she could travel and come and go as she desired, which she did extensively. For years, Auntie spent very little time at the home. Now, at the age of 90, she is infirm and in a wheelchair. She needs around-the-clock care--and she gets it. The family, what is left of us, are scattered all over the country; and Auntie seldom gets visitors. But whenever one of us does call, we find a happy, contented, well-cared-for senior citizen who never calls out, "Nurse, I'm lonely."
When I first started visiting retirement and full-care homes, I considered them to be awful places and one day I said to a son: "Son, before you put me in one of these homes, shoot me." Of course I was kidding; but, you can see how terrible I thought the homes were. Since that time, I have seen dozens of beautiful caring places. Recently, I toured the Alzheimer's facilities run by my cousin Tom Sharon in Tacoma, Washington. No one wants Alzheimer's, but this terrible condition has been minimized by these thoughtful, happy facilities.
Loneliness comes to people who do not prepare for a good retirement. I have met young people who said they were never going to retire; but when the time comes, almost everyone has to drop the old loads and pick up new ones. We must all carry some type of burden or occupy ourselves with something of interest. The saddest tale ever told concerns the person who never made any provision to retire or change occupations.
So, if you find a care facility that cares, you will not need to worry about the frightening conditions of loneliness. Today, social services, churches, lodges, schools, and institutions are dedicated to the proposition that many people need to be cared for. If you are one of those people, relax and let other people cure their loneliness by curing yours.
Another type of lonely person has come to my attention: people who have retired and find themselves at a loss as to what to do. Here are eight sure-fired cures for such loneliness:
- Keep busy -- If you are lonely, do with eagerness whatever is in front of you to do: write letters, visit people, fix something that needs to be fixed, take up a hobby, start collecting something of value, become amazed and fascinated by everything around you. Keep busily involved in everything that gets your attention--every little thing and every middle-sized thing can soon grow into big significant projects. The happiest person I ever met and the busiest person I ever met are one and the same. Cure loneliness by keeping busy.
- Involve yourself -- If you are lonely, involve yourself in community affairs. Many times when people retire they find themselves in a burned-out condition. Some folks have told me, all I want to do is just sit in a chair, pet my dog, stare out the window, or watch TV. This kind of mental attitude sets a person up to be lonely. And, if a person continues to be a hermit, there will come a time when an incurable loneliness will be the order of the day.
- Help others -- If you are lonely, look for and strive to cure the loneliness of someone else--it will cure your own. How about holding the hand of some of those people who made no provisions for old age. There are myriads of people who need help--find them and help them.
- Avoid escapes -- If you are lonely, avoid day dreaming, sleeping too much, and watching too much TV. When you do dream dreams, make them possible, obtainable, and something you can work on. Dream magnificent goals for the future and start to bring them about. TV can be a life-saver on occasions; but to mesmerize your brain in a constant dose of radiation from the idiot box is a sure-fire way of becoming depressed and lonely. Too much sleep can be a powerful escape mechanism. We can find ourselves fleeing from guilt, responsibility, failure, and hopelessness. To run away through sleep is just like running away with alchohol--it only makes matters worse. Fight the tendency to sleep too much as if it were a demon from hell--it is.
- Choose to be happy -- If you are lonely, you are probably depressed and unhappy. Fight unhappiness with a direct attack of the will--choose to be happy in spite of the circumstances. Ask yourself the question, "How does my unhappiness change my situation?" The answer will be, "It doesn't, it just makes it worse." So make things better for yourself by choosing to be happy. Fight depression by talking out your problems. If alcoholics can join a group and get control of their drinking, you can join a group and get control of your depression. Talk to friends, a counselor, or your pastor, and keep talking until you find yourself maintaining an attitude of optimism.
- Collect good thoughts -- If you are lonely, collect inspirational thoughts, good jokes, meaningful poems, and literary masterpieces. Read lots of good books, if you can; if you can't, have someone read to you. Make a list of good things that you read about and then try to memorize some inspirational quotation and share it with whoever comes your way. Collect good thoughts to share with those people who come your way, and soon others will search for your companionship like the proverbial guru of the mountain.
- Join a social group -- If you are lonely, join one of the many social groups in your community. See that you visit the Senior Center regularly and meet new people. You will find many individuals there that are involved in social gatherings of various types. Commit yourself to one or more groups that you find of interest.
- Go to church -- If you are lonely, go to church. How do I have the nerve to tell people to go to church when I am writing a secular work? I do for the following reason: There is a lot of criticism of the church, but no substitute for it. Most churches care for their people and treat everyone who attends like family. If we cut the church out of the community there would be tens of thousands of more lonely people. I have heard some people say, I went to church and the people were unfriendly. If we are friendly, the church will be friendly. If we are unfriendly, more than 75% of the time, the church will still be friendly.
Loneliness is often caused by wanting people to do something for us. When we do things for other people, we are never lonely. Self-referenced thinking often leads to a barrenness of spirit that breeds discontent and loneliness. Think up, think out, toward people, think around, toward all the exciting things of life; and avoid thinking too much about yourself, and the problem of loneliness will disappear.
Loneliness generally occurs at specific times of the day or during specific days such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Planning ahead for these times so that you are active and busy with other things helps provide a very effective means of dealing with loneliness.