It is one thing to be like Greta Garbo, who famously declared in her Swedish accent, “I vant to be alone.” It is quite another matter to be lonely.
Especially now, as we emerge from a year of COVID isolation, many people feel like they are lacking companionship. Three in five working Americans regard themselves as lonely, according to a 2019 Cigna survey – up 19% from the previous year. Surprisingly, 18- to 22-year-olds had the highest average loneliness score. And this was before the pandemic.
Many countries, cities, and civic groups have already launched innovative projects to reduce loneliness. Shareable has reported some of them. While these are necessary and promising community measures, social isolation is also an individual challenge.
In a mere nine years, one-fourth of the U. S. population will be over 65. Loneliness could become an even greater problem. We need conversation, support, and – most important – the life-enhancing energy that comes from interacting with others.
Ironically, I’ve learned how to combat loneliness from its most likely victims: women in their 90s and 100s.
My old ladies
I call them “my old ladies,” the way a man might refer to a wife or girlfriend who’s there for him. My old ladies — some still alive, others now only in my heart and head – are “there” for me, too. They guide me through territory that none of us is eager to explore. (And no, they don’t mind being called “old”!)
I never set out to collect old ladies. In fact, befriending someone 25 years older was the last thing on my mind when I walked into in a fiction-writing class in 1993. Scanning the faces of my fellow students, I thought, Damn! a room full of old people.
I was 50. My classmates were G. I. Generation (1901–1927) retirees. One of them, Henrietta, was 75. She walked with a cane, wore coke-bottle glasses, and held her manuscript an inch from her nose when she read aloud. Widowed at 48, she lived alone but kept herself busy by attending classes and writing stories.
We often had coffee after class; sometimes, she invited me home. I peppered her with questions, curious to learn where her energy and courage came from. When I moved from Manhattan to Massachusetts, we exchanged long letters until she died at 99.
Henrietta was my first but not my last. Each of my old ladies, in her own unique way, is fully engaged with life. They are gifted connectors, who understand the importance of forging and maintaining meaningful connections.
Why old people often “know better”
Marge, now 103, is the belle of our building in New York. On a sunny day, you’ll find her on the roof, talking to fellow residents about politics or finance. She reads several newspapers and still handles her own investments. I once asked if could interview her for a piece about “the oldest living stock trader in New York.”
“Sure,” she said, “but I don’t trade stocks. I invest.”
Anyone, at any age, can become lonely, even Marge, who recently told me, “Of course I get lonely…Everyone I know is dead!” She isn’t being morbid. Her parents, sister, and closest contemporaries are no longer here.
“Acute” loneliness, the kind Marge sometimes experiences, can be triggered by a transition or changed circumstances – a first child, a new boss, retirement, the death of a loved one. If you pay attention and deal with it, such loneliness passes.
John Cacioppo, the social neuroscientist who literally wrote the book on loneliness (“Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”), thinks of it “social pain.” Cacioppo maintains that belonging is as basic a need as food. Hunger reminds us that we need to eat. Loneliness reminds us that we need to connect.
Loneliness is only a problem, Cacioppo writes, when it becomes a “persistent, self-enforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations, and behaviors.” The “chronically lonely” are prone to cycles of suspicion, depression, and self-doubt. They can develop insomnia. Many turn to alcohol or pills. Their immune system weakens, and they are less able to warn off serious illnesses. They have a 26% higher risk of premature death.
The best way of climbing out of loneliness, says Cacioppo, is to – paradoxically – do something for another person. You meet your need to connect but you’re not operating totally out of self-interest.
This makes sense. Decades of research confirm that giving benefits the receiver and the giver. It also could explain why my old ladies know how to deal with loneliness.
As children, they were neither pampered nor protected. Much was expected of them. They lived through the Depression and two World Wars – eras that required sacrifice and service. And now in their dotage, it feels both natural and gratifying to give back, to do for others. They draw attention to themselves, but only in service of companionship, not compliments – a refreshing and rare phenomenon in the era of Instagram.
Aging also tends to reduce the frequency and intensity of negative emotions. My old ladies know what they’ve already lived through and handled. They’ve gotten this far. They’re less likely to let a bout of loneliness get them down.
The old lady credo
My old ladies are admittedly a hand-picked group – women I was drawn to because of their energy and engagement with life. They don’t represent all old people, of course – just the lucky ones, who still have sharp minds, determination, and the inclination to connect. Each is a power of example reminding us how to live and satisfy our social appetite at any age.
1. Take care of yourself
“Sit, sit!” commands Marge when I offer to answer her door. She has no problem asking for help when she needs it, but her first choice is to do it herself.
Marge has regular check-ups and a personal trainer who visits twice a week. She subscribes to five health newsletters. She plans her menus and shops for groceries by phone. When she doesn’t order in, she cooks. Her housekeeper does the heavy cleaning, but in a pinch Marge can change sheets and clean toilets, too. The last thing she wants is to be dependent.
She has the right idea: When you feel like you’re in charge of your own life, you have choices. Loneliness might wash over you – for Marge it happens when she thinks about her dear friend Lil. But when you’re competent and resourceful, you can do something to alleviate the sense of loss. “I get busy,” she says, “What else is there to do?”
No surprise, taking care of yourself is key to aging well.
2. Find your social sweet spot
Sylvia was a social butterfly who died a few days short of her 98th birthday. She had hundreds of admirers. We had to get in line to make a lunch date.
You might cringe at the thought of having a calendar like Sylvia’s, and that’s okay. It’s engagement that matters, not numbers. You must figure out what feels comfortable – and safe – for you.
Genes and environment determine our social appetites. For clues about your capacity for schmoozing, look the relationship patterns in your family. Were your parents loners or party-people? Ponder your own past as well. Have you always had a large circle or a few select acquaintances? What kind of social situations feel most comfortable? When we feel safe, we relax. We make better choices and are more likely to behave in ways that attract others.
3. Be good company
My old ladies don’t allow themselves to wallow in negativity. They read, take courses, develop new hobbies and interests late in life, and know what’s happening in the world. As a result, they draw people to them. You do not feel like you’re talking to an “old” person. Though some have problems, they don’t complain. They share happy memories, tell stories of travel and triumphs, of work they enjoyed and serendipitous encounters. They might mention their health but only the good news. Most important, they ask about you.
4. Don’t be afraid of strangers
When Zelda was in her mid-90s, still taking three-mile walks near the ocean, she stopped a stranger: “Hi, I’m Zelda. I think I’ve seen you on this path before. My children are worried about
me being alone in case anything happens. Would you mind if we walked together?” Zelda described the woman as “my latest conquest.” She regularly “picked up” strangers (including me). Indeed, when Zelda later read “Consequential Strangers” – my book about the importance of acquaintances outside of family and close friends – the concept immediately resonated with her. “When you’re my age, honey, you have to replenish.”
Zelda seemed to have a gift for picking people who were like her: upbeat and interesting. She wisely stayed away from complainers and “sad sacks,” as she called them. Negativity is infectious. Having one lonely friend, Cacioppo’s research suggests, raises your chance of loneliness by 40 to 65 percent.
5. Reach across the generations
Much older acquaintances allow us to understand aging rather than avert our eyes. Younger ones keep us current and energized. Both have something to give and can sometimes improve your close relationships as well. A much younger acquaintance might make you realize you’re not giving your own child as much credit as he deserves. A wise, level-headed elder might encourage you to take to second look at the mother or father you normally tune out.
6. Lighten up – and laugh
Marge is witty; she has that New York edge. Asked the secret of aging well, she jokes, “I keep breathing!” Holding on to her Rollator for balance as we walk down Park Avenue, she says, “I still see through the eyes of a 25-year-old, but my body feels like I’m 110!”
In contrast, Zelda, who almost made it to 105, had Borsch-Belt “shtick” – a repertoire of songs, poems, and dirty jokes she trotted out at dinner parties and performed at her 100th birthday celebration. She even took her show on the road, making appearances at local senior centers.
A sense of humor might not guarantee a long life, but it certainly improves the now. Different as Marge and Zelda are, they both laugh easily and make you laugh. Their joy is infectious. They leave you wanting more.
7. Be generous
Many of my old ladies give to charity, tip well, and buy gifts of appreciation for people they care about. Just as important, they often “spend” time and energy on others. It is emotionally generous to remember someone’s name, say thank you, send a note, pay attention, listen, give advice, and offer help. Such kindnesses make a lasting impact on the giver as well as the recipient. As one young woman wrote on Sylvia’s still-active Facebook page: “She had her own kids and grandkids and great-grandkids nearby. But it never, ever kept her from investing time and energy in me.”
8. Be grateful for the little things – and hold onto them
We sometimes think we need to make big changes to feel less lonely. Surprisingly, small steps can make a difference. A smile, a hello, a phone call, a moment’s worth of attention means everything to my old ladies. They pay attention to simple pleasures that are readily available and often right before their eyes. They take nothing for granted; every day is a gift.
Gratitude is a key component of happiness. And happy people rarely feel lonely. A few months before she died, Zelda called me: “Honey, I just realized something, and I think you’ll like it.” She knew how much I cherished her insights about ageing. “The first part of your life is for making memories, and the next part is for remembering. That’s where I am now. And I’m so grateful for the memories I get to relive.”
9. Don’t ruminate; move on
S##t happens. And when it does, you have two choices: deal with it – or sink into despair.
My old ladies don’t wonder “why” their lives have taken a particular course. As Marge once remarked, “I don’t analyze the past. That wouldn’t change anything!”
Lois, my old lady in Paris, turned 90 this year. She’s a little slower and can’t take the long walks she once loved. But she still walks, just shorter distances. She still sees people. And when she can’t, she still goes to the movies on her own. “When there’s nothing you can do about it, accept, and move on.”
10. Make your own happiness
Zelda lived on her own until 103, when a medical scare – and her adult children – convinced her she’d be better off in assisted living. For the first time in over a decade of knowing her, I heard loneliness and anger in her voice. She had lost her independence. “They” assumed that exercising twice a week was enough for her. Worst of all, she was “stuck” with “a bunch of old people.”
Three months later, the old Zelda returned. “I spoke up. I convinced them to give me more physical therapy,” she explained, “and now I’m putting on shows for the other residents. They’re not so bad. I’ve found a few I like.”
Diana, the 97 year-old mother of a college friend, broke her ankle in nine places while doing yoga. When she returned from the hospital, her best friend, Gert, 99 at the time, was worried:
“Diana, how can you stand being in a wheelchair? You’ve always been so active – golf, tennis, running around…”
“Gert,” Diana interrupted, “You make your own happiness.”
This story continues Shareable’s series on community solutions to social isolation. Check out more stories from the series:
- Bridging Ages’ Life Stories Project connects seniors and teens
- How 186 seniors building an exhibit on social isolation also built a community
- Download our free ebook on social isolation here