"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?"
From the looks of things - how we treat our older adults - apparently they all belong in some sort of retirement community or worse, a nursing home.
Eleanor Rigby is not alone in her loneliness.
As I age, I start worrying about where I am going to end up when everyone else is gone. If I outlive Hubby and my friends, then what?
My mother ended up all alone in a nursing home where the underpaid staff of young people seemed to care more about standing around talking about their dates than making sure the inmates, er, residents had their diapers on. Hubby's dad ended up in a place where he was constantly hearing hard luck stories from the staff and giving them money.
But before we get to the endgame of loneliness, what do we do now while we still have our faculties and some ability to make our own decisions about how we want to spend the rest of our lives?
Is loneliness and ending up alone in an institution automatically our fate when we grow old?
I say no, but there are factors that can lead to a lonely life.
It's one thing to be old, retired and alone in the town you grew up in. Even though your spouse and parents might be dead, you most probably have a network of friends that you have had since childhood. But many of us no longer live in the towns where we grew up. We have moved around the country, or even the world, chasing jobs, loves and adventure, in each place having to start over making friends and creating a supportive community. But we did it.
However, as we get older, finding ourselves in a new town and having to start over gets harder and harder. We might not have the resources that we had when we were younger or if we had stayed in our hometowns. Many of us old folks move to be near our adult children and grandchildren, not realizing how difficult it might be to start a new life in a new place as an older adult. When we were young, we could walk down to the neighborhood bar and when we left, we would have had at least one new friend. But trying to make friends when we are in our 50's, 60's and 70's is not that easy.
- If you have a job, the potential for friendships is there.
- If you belong to a church, fine. Instant community.
- If you have a hobby and can join a gun club or tennis club, perhaps that is a good way to make new friends.
- If you have moved voluntarily to a retirement community and there are all kinds of activities you are interested in, then great.
- But what if you work from home?
- What if you are retired and can't afford to move to a retirement community?
- What if you have health issues that restrict your mobility?
When you move to a new place, your peers most likely have their own families and friends. They are not looking to take on new friends. Friends take time and energy. Even if you have moved to be near your grandchildren, your adult children have busy lives and your grandchildren have their own activities and friends. Unless you live with them, you can't rely on them as your sole source of companionship and social life.
I volunteer as a counselor for seniors who are going through bereavement, health issues or big changes in their lives. Mostly, they are women who are alone and some are sadly warehoused into nursing homes or some kind of facility where their adult children don't have to worry about them. And these parents didn't go there because they wanted to. They went because they "didn't want to be a burden" to their kids.
My own mother, who was a beautiful proud woman, ended up in such a place and it is something I don't think I will ever get over. She had a stroke that affected her brain and caused some dementia, but don't think she didn't know that she was alone and without her family. She did. And she was the type of person who would also have not wanted to be a burden.
My mother had a stroke which resulted in dementia and she ended up in a nursing home. I won't go into the details about why and how that happened, but it did. And I remember she didn't want to go, but at the time, it didn't seem like she was able to stay on in her home alone.
But let me tell you, she might have been confused about where she was or not remember much about the immediate past, but she did know she wasn't with her family. She also knew her niece's phone number. My cousin, my mother's favorite niece, who lived in the town where I grew up and where my mother lived her entire life, had spent a lot of time with my mother over the years and was very good to my mother. But my cousin had to change the ring on her phone for my mother's calls, because my mother called her every day, sometimes more than once, to ask when she was going to come and get her. I don't blame my cousin at all for not wanting to answer her phone every day and have to deal with my mother, but can you imagine what it must have been like for my mother to call for someone to come and get her and no one answered? If that doesn't wrench your heart, I don't know what would.
As I mentioned, I volunteer as a senior counselor. One of my clients is housebound because of some physical issues. She not only has difficulty moving around but she has lost the desire to do anything at all. She wants to work with me to figure out how to deal with her situation and to find some motivation. She moved thousands of miles from where she had lived all of her life to be near her son and grandson but only sees them once a week. She has mobility issues and rarely leaves her home which restricts her ability to meet people. What will she do with the rest of her life?
Another client was in a nursing home for people with dementia but did NOT have dementia. Her health problems required nursing care but she had all of her mental faculties. She had no one to talk to except the caregivers and her daughter, who visited once a week, unless she wanted to try to talk to one of the inmates, er, residents, a resident who thought she was on a vacation and her son was going to pick her up any day now or the guy who thought he was the king of Romania.
It seems to me that there were solutions for these people to be more of a part of their families rather than languishing alone. But what is surprising is that many people who find themselves in these situations wouldn't say they wanted their adult children to care for them even if they would. As I said, the mantra seems to be "I don't want to be a burden."
From what I have seen, I am just appalled. How can a loved one be a burden?
What has happened to us that instead of revering our aged population and spending time with them and learning from them, we would rather put them out of sight where we don't have to "worry about them."
That is very different from how it used to be or how it is in other cultures where getting older was not a curse but something to be respected, where families looked after their aging relatives and learned from them.
My husband's parents took care of his grandmother. She lived with them until her death and he remembers time with her fondly. My grandparents lived across the street from us and my Dad went over there every day and fixed their dinner. They both lived and died in their own home, and before they died they were able to interact with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Sure, your adult children or loved ones are busy, but you were busy, too, when you were raising them, and now it's their turn if they have the means. I know many people are struggling and don't have space for a parent or the financial ability to help. I get that. But I have seen situations where the ability was there but not the desire. Sad.
Many of us don't want to be a burden to our kids or loved ones. But did it ever occur to you that perhaps your kids and loved ones want to take care of you? Maybe some of you have kids who now realize all you did for them and they want to return the favor. Or not.
And if it's not, then for better or worse, for those of us who can't afford or don't want to move to a retirement community, I would guess that most of us want to stay in our own homes. OK, if I am living alone, maybe I might fall. Get me that alert thing that calls the paramedics. Maybe I will meet a cute paramedic. And perhaps if my brain isn't what it once was, I might leave something on the stove and burn the house down. OK, it's my house and I'd rather die that way than in a nursing home where I have no freedom and am treated like a prisoner for the rest of my life.
This is not for those of you who have the means and want to move to a retirement community where you have assistance, your meals, and when the time comes, nursing care. Good for you for making plans. But those situations are very expensive and some of us don't have the means to do that nor do we want to. Maybe we don't want to have to get rid of most of our belongings and move into a community where we don't know anyone, where there are rules we have to follow and we are treated like children.
Adult children this is for you:
Put yourselves in your parents' shoes. How would you feel about being yanked out of your home, a home you have lived in for 25 years or more, to be placed in a strange place with strange people where you are not allowed to leave just because you have some health/mental/whatever problems that have become a problem for your children?
How would you feel being put into a place where there are rules about what you can do, where you can go, what you can eat?
How would you like to be left alone with strangers, some of whom don't know what day it is?
Sure, you worry about your parent. You don't want that call in the middle of the night that your parent has fallen down or set the house on fire.
But I would bet that if you asked your loved one if he or she would rather go to a nursing home or drop dead at home, the answer would be the latter.
So before you stuff your loved one into a nursing home or someplace he or she doesn't want to be, I implore you to exhaust all options available in your community. Your parents exhausted themselves taking care of you. Now it's your turn.
Washington State is a leader in services for the aging population. Because of what happened to my mother, I have become an advocate for "aging in place." I had the privilege of serving on the local Council on Aging where I was made aware of all of the services available to help people "age in place," i.e. stay in their own homes as long as possible, despite health and financial issues. And before you say anything about how is this paid for and you don't want higher taxes and all of that, it has been proven that it is cheaper to provide services to help people stay in their own homes than to put them into an institution.
There are counseling programs that I mentioned earlier, companion programs, food services, senior centers, adult daycare, etc. Find out what services and programs are available in your town that will help you care for your loved one, so your loved one can "age in place."
Now here is my message to my own kids.
I may get forgetful or even suffer from dementia. I may not be able to get around anymore, but I do not want to be warehoused. I do not want to live amongst a bunch of other old people. I DO want to be a burden so get used to it. I took care of you and now it's your turn.
Besides, one of the main reasons I can't move into an old people's home is there wouldn't be enough room for all of my clothes.
But mainly, all of you "kids" out there, I want to save you from regret and guilt, which I guarantee you will have if you send your parents away against their will and they let you, because they "don't want to be a burden." I live with the regret and pain every day that I couldn't save my mother.
Now, you old Baby Boomers, this is for you:
Whether you are or will be in your hometown in your own house when your spouse and most of your peers have died and your kids (if you have them) have moved away or you are all alone in a new town or assisted living facility, how do you cope with the loneliness that might accompany moving to a new place or suddenly being alone?
Whatever our circumstances, as we age, how do we keep living the life we deserve to live - a full one that brings us joy?
First of all, do what you can to plan for the inevitable, to decide what you want to do and how you want to live out your life, especially if you can't really make the decision for yourself, and make sure your kids or loved ones know what your wishes are.
Find out what services are available through your local Senior Services or equivalent. Even though you are alone and might not know many people, try to avoid being isolated. If you are able, volunteering is a good way to stay connected with people. If you don't have one already, get a computer and learn how to use it. Sign up for Facebook so you can talk to your children and grandkids or friends online, but don't "friend" anyone you don't know (beware of being scammed. If a handsome stranger in a military uniform 30 years younger than you wants to "friend" you on Facebook, sorry. He's not interested in you. He's in a sweat shop somewhere overseas and just wants your money. Don't fall for it). But reach out. Don't be afraid to ask for what you need. There are all kinds of ways to stay connected.
But in the end, even if your living situation is to your liking, at some point you will probably find yourself alone and feeling lonely.
As one great sage from "Real World New Orleans" said, "I am never lonely because everywhere I go, I am there."
I know. He wasn't a sage. He was just a kid on "The Real World," and I think he stole that from Buddha or some other famous person, but that doesn't matter, the sentiment remains the same. As you get older, it's important to remember that your true self is always with you, that you are your own best friend, so it's important to enjoy your own company and to recognize the joy that exists in your life.
Your thoughts might tell you that you are old, alone and lonely, but you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts will sometimes tell you things that make you sad, that tell you that you don't matter or what's the point of your life? But those are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go. They are not you.
You. You will always be you. No matter how old you get, how wrinkled, how infirm, if you are at home alone or in a nursing home, you will always be you, and your very existence matters and is the whole point. No one and nothing can take that from you. Your body may have changed and gotten old, but your true self is still inside there, the person you have always been.
No matter what, you are still YOU, the you that can choose joy.
When my clients in the counseling program are struggling with health issues, getting old, circumstances that they can't control, I try to convey that to them.
And I tell myself that too.
Even though I am old and can't do all of the things I used to do... Even though I am far from my children and grandchildren and get lonely and sad at times... Even though I don't know what the future holds...I remind myself that I am still me. I will always be me, that person who can find joy in little things like a nice big bowl of gelato or a particularly good episode of the British soap opera I watch or a moving figure skating routine or reading a good book or relishing a great movie or watching the antics of my dogs or looking out my window and noticing the sun peeking through the trees, reminding me that I exist.
In those moments, I know I can reject the negative thoughts that come and go and choose joy instead.
I can also reflect back on my life, and when I do that, I am reminded of the person I was and will always be and there is also joy in that.
I will always be the young girl who loved her parents and had a happy childhood,
and who wanted to be an actress.
I will always be the woman who raised two successful children she loves,
who had a long and happy marriage to a man she loves,
who loves her grandchildren,
who had a successful and satisfying career,
who likes to dress up her dogs,
who finds joy in movies and books and food and fashion,
who writes a blog, and who has always tried to do the right thing and be a better person.
When I am aware of all of those things, I feel joy and that joy I feel is my true self speaking, that part of me that has always been there.
My true self says,"You did good, kid (I know that's bad English but I don't want to be correcting my true self when she is saying something nice to me)! And you are still here. There is still more joy to be felt and life to be lived. You might have some bad days but, just remember, there is always tomorrow, and tomorrow might be filled with joy. Who knows? But you want to be here to find out, don't you?"
And likewise, no matter where or how you end up, you will always be the person who lived and loved, who lives and loves, who feels joy when you think of all you have done and the joy you still feel in little things. You may be old, but you will always be YOU and those moments of joy are glimpses into your true self reminding you that YOU are there and will always be there, and you will never really be alone.
So when you are feeling old, alone and lonely and wonder what's the point of getting up each day, tap into that core of your existence, your true self, that space inside you that has experienced joy, and despite your circumstances, can still experience joy, even if it's just a snuggle from your cat or watching your favorite TV show. Choose joy. Remind yourself that every time you feel some joy, no matter how small, it's your true self, YOU, reminding you that you are alive and you are still and always will be YOU and no one and nothing can take that away from you.
Hopefully knowing that, even though you are alone, you won't be lonely.
Now go tell your loved ones you are so looking forward to their taking care of you!
Thanks for Reading!
See you Friday
for my review of
"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before
The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)
and the latest on
"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before
I Die Project."
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