Seniors: Combatting loneliness in older adults

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Baby Boomers in the U.S. age alone more than any prior generation. (file photo)
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By Cele Garrett

In January 2018, the British government announced the creation of its first Minister of Loneliness. Many people wondered if that was a joke, but those of us who serve older citizens know very well that loneliness is no laughing matter.

Loneliness isn’t reserved for our elders, of course, but Baby Boomers in the U.S. are aging alone more than any prior generation. Statistics suggest that the rates of loneliness are increasing, and experts say this is due to fewer social interactions and a decreased responsibility for each other. Loneliness and social isolation among our seniors are public health threats that impact every community, including our own.

Many cities and neighborhoods have rolled up their sleeves in a grassroots effort to help stem the tide of loneliness among seniors and to help them stay safe and independent. That’s how the “village movement” was born 17 years ago. At Home in Alexandria is one of the 350 membership-based nonprofit “villages” across the country. Our 228 Alexandria members come together for social activities, information sharing and practical support.

Villages are only one solution, and, fortunately, here in Alexandria there are a number of resources for seniors. However, no single organization or entity can solve the larger problem of social isolation among our seniors. It requires a change in mindset. We all can do a much better job of reaching out to our older neighbors to bring them into community with us, but change also must happen with the seniors who may need some help.

A few years ago at a conference, the featured speaker, writer and activist Ashton Applewhite, addressed a topic that hit me like a lightning bolt. She asked the audience the simple question, “What is a true community?”

Community is not just about everybody getting along or a group of people with a common interest. Community is about mutual reliance.

As Applewhite said, “The greatest gift is to rely upon someone and to be relied upon to others. One without the other will not work.”

These words have instructed me in my work. Independence is a double-edged sword; we guard it closely for fear that allowing someone to help us as we age is a sign of weakness. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I hate asking for help — it’s embarrassing. I’ve always done this myself.” But when we refuse to accept help, we lose the chance to show a younger generation what it truly means to be in community with one another. Anyone who has helped another person knows what a positive and rewarding experience it is. Don’t deny someone that opportunity.

And while technology has made our lives more and more convenient — for example, by allowing us to order our groceries online and have everything delivered to our homes — it can isolate us further from our larger community.

“Convenience kills community more than anything,” Applewhite said.

I fondly remember two of our former AHA members, Don and Margaret, who had moved to Alexandria from Boston. They loved city life and had given up their cars. No longer encumbered with the expense of owning cars, they had a healthy budget for taxis, Uber rides and public transportation. Our AHA volunteers provided them with rides to doctor appointments or errands on occasion, but often the couple chose to ride the bus. Not only did they get a good walk in, they enjoyed the challenge of figuring out the bus schedule and meeting people along the way.

Not long ago, one of our volunteers took a member grocery shopping. Afterwards, the member called me to say, “Thank you for sending Carol. We hit it off like old friends.” I told her that her kind words had made my day. She said, “Well, Carol made my day.” I then called Carol to relay the story. I had to smile when Carol said, “Well, this call has just made my day.”

So, don’t be afraid to accept help if you need it, and don’t be too shy to ask for help, as unnatural as it may seem at first. You are helping to build a stronger community. And, you never know when you just might make someone’s day.

Cele Garrett is the executive director of At Home in Alexandria.

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