I've always needed a lot of solitude, or "alone time," as I've called it. Since I was a small child caught up in books, I was aware that I am different than most people I know. If I tell people I'm not "social," they always, always, disagree. It seems that, because I am friendly and easy to talk to, people assume I'm social.
Humans are social creatures and we all need a certain amount of social interaction. What I find frustrating, when I try to explain my need for solitude to people, is that most people seem to equate solitude with loneliness. They are not the same thing.
I, too, have felt lonely. Loneliness is not a pleasant, "I'm alone because I want time to gather my thoughts, or just to be," feeling, but a hunger - a lacking of companionship. And, according to a study reported on in Current Directions in Psychological Science, loneliness is very unhealthy business.
In a story titled, "Psychologist Study Loneliness And Its Effect On Health," published on medicalnewstoday.com, University of Chicago psychologists, Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo, have been "trying to disentangle social isolation, loneliness, and the physical deterioration and diseases of aging, right down to the cellular level."
This is where I get into discussions with people who struggle with elders who want to "stay in their own homes." If the elder lives in a neighborhood where there are still friends - in other words, they aren't the last of the "old timers" left on the block; if the elder can still get out and run errands, go places with friends, garden or do whatever he or she enjoys, then good for them. It's probably a good and healthy thing.
If some in-home help is needed, some senior van rides required and some extra help with the lawn hired out, so be it. If this senior is enjoying life at home, that's great. However I know of far too many elders who have a life that consists of micro-waved dinners eaten in front of an endless stream of TV shows that aren't even enjoyed.
Yet, they insist they don't want to leave their home and their friends. However, they have no friends left, nearby. They simply exist. And they are lonely. Often, once these elders are convinced to move to some form of community living, after a period of adjustment (sometimes including outright anger), the ones who make even the slightest effort to socialize find themselves loving their new surroundings. They make new friends. They get involved in activities. They "age in place," so if someone falls and needs surgery, friends can still visit, even if the injured person has to move to more care.
I'm not implying that every community can offer these services, nor is this the right solution for everyone. There are some elders who don't want to socialize. Period. And, whether because of stubbornness, basic personality, or personality changes from dementia, they would never adjust to community living. Maybe these folks are better left to their microwave and TV. However, sometimes we have to try to figure out which came first, the cantankerous personality or the loneliness. It's not always clear.
The study did conclude that, "Loneliness is not the same as solitude. Some people are just fine with being alone, and some even see solitude as an important path to spiritual growth. But for many, social isolation and physical aging make for a toxic cocktail."
It's not always easy for a caregiver to discern the difference. And even if we think we know the solution, it's not always easy to implement. But I do think we need to watch for negative stress from loneliness in our elders. Yes, they deserve solitude, as well, and ideally a life should provide the opportunity for both.
Published On: October 14, 2008