Loneliness and Isolation

Last month I read an article in The Boston Globe by Billy Barker entitled “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.”   A great deal of it resonated with me but one sentence in particular caught my attention.  It was this.    “Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, has said many times in recent years that the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.”

The essayy caused me to reflect on my life and the friends both in it and those that have passed through it.  I doubt that loneliness or isolation was a concept that I understood as a boy on a diary farm in southern Ontario.  Most of my time when I wasn’t entertaining myself was spent with my parents or the farm pets.  In the one-room school that I attended I made more friends and of course on the bus ride to and from high school even more.  And I think at the time that although it was assumed that we would all eventually be married and rear our own families that our bonds would continue for all time.

And then my parents moved to a more distant city and I with them.  All my old friends were at least an hour’s drive away, and other than family I had no friends.  Soon after the move I went to work and I think that nearly all of the people that I called friends were people that I worked with.  And so it continued for most of my life and as I moved from one job or career to another, so would my circle of friends evolve, keeping some and adding some new ones.  I acquired some new friends through membership in service clubs and other organizations.  And throughout it all the thought never really crossed my mind that I didn’t have enough friends but always left room for a few more.

However, it never occurred to me how great the impact of a career was on my circle of friends until I retired.  Suddenly a lot of those people that I could depend on to share a story regularly over a coffee or a sandwich were gone.  Now I cherish even more those who remain.

And as for those high school friends that I thought that I would never lose contact with, I haven’t heard from any of them in fifty years.  In some ways I envy a few acquaintances who have managed to stay in close contact with people that they have know from their early childhood school days.  Of course it was moving away from the place where we lived that severed the relationships but it would still be comforting to have maintained those links.

Fortunate are those elderorphans who enjoy the luxury of having a lot of friends.  One day soon I hope that we can have a discussion addressing how we can all meet and keep new ones.  The record seems to suggest that most women are much better at this than men.  What can we learn from them?

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  • Regarding the pastimes of elder single people, I notice a gathering of men in the early mornings at the A&W’s, the McD’s, and Jack in the Box’s of the world. It’s hard to know when this phenomena started.
    These gatherings have as many as 8 men sitting at one table yucking it up, all dressed casually but clean. I often wonder what their wives think of their early morning visits out when they could be spending quality time at home? That is if they have wives.
    By 8AM the absence of this congregation is noticeable. Frequenting some of these locations, I’ve noticed it’s the same crew, summer and winter. They arrive in their cars or pick up trucks 5 to 10 minutes before the establishments open, and it’s always men, 55 and up. We can dissect this behaviour if we wish, but ultimately these people require familiar human contact and have found a way to maintain it.

    • Hi Herb;

      Thanks for another comment.

      I recall that my father would head for the local shopping mall nearly every weekday morning to socialize with a few of his buddies from church or from work. He was devoted to my mother, but no doubt enjoyed changing the channel for a couple of hours every day to swap stories and opinions with fresh faces. Nevertheless I do think that the ladies have the advantage when it comes to socializing with one another. A breakfast get-together can often turn into an awkward situation when the lunch customers begin to arrive and want a table.

      Perhaps it is time that I head over to the mall and made some new friends over a coffee. I may have to set the alarm clock though!

  • Hi Herb;

    On a new BLOG attracting the first comment must be among the most difficult of challenges. Thanks for helping out.

    It does take some effort to maintain contacts. I know of people who would never think of missing an opportunity to send out birthday or anniversary acknowledgements. E-mail certainly has made that easier and less expensive. And although I very often receive e-mail jokes that I have seen many times it is comforting to know that I am in someone’s thoughts from time-to-time.

    The fact that you are comfortable approaching strangers as friends suggests to me that you have what it takes to build a great crowd of them whenever you put your mind to it.

    Your comment did get me thinking though about how wide the spectrum may be of the loneliness and isolation factor.

    Most of us know people who are surrounded by friends. It seems to me that their secret is simply being a friend to everyone that they meet; and they tend to meet a lot. A simple recipe.

    On the other hand, my former neighbour’s brother is what I would term a recluse. He quite happily lives by himself on a rural property on the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario and doesn’t seem to need any human contact whatsoever. On the few occasions when I have met him he certainly doesn’t come across as unfriendly; just prefers his own company. He clearly has the potential to become an elderorphan someday but until then he is self-sufficient and evidently quite content with his lifestyle. He obviously treasures his independence, but unless he is mighty fortunate he will no doubt need help someday.

    • Hi Elderorphan,
      I believe this to be a proper name rather than a description of the recipient of this reply.
      Your friend is admired by many of us society-thrivers. However, the stamina required for the recluse life is greater than one could imagine until tried.
      I met a man in Auburn Washington who was long-haul trucking for the simple purpose of escaping his previous identity. He believed he would not be found if he was constantly on the move. Living in the long-haul world for a while I soon noticed it was a prison of sorts. You live in a 2 square metre enclosure, and you go where you’re told without any deviation from a designated route. Personal appointments can’t be kept and soon enough family and friends forget who you are because there is no personal contact. This was before present day electronic communication and even face to face phone conversations. I’m not sure that these enhancements have really made long-haul trucking less lonely. One is still spending the entire day staring at a white or yellow line on a highway….quick path to dementia. Deep relationships are not forged this way.
      I’ve also spent extended time in the great outdoors without seeing anyone, except my hiking partner, for weeks. Loneliness is not the problem there, but rather survival, however, after the survival issues have been solved, want for other’s company would have to become real. Just anyone’s company is not enough though, it would have to be someone who has had history with us: someone who knows us, and someone who we know how to react to. That’s the topic here. Have we spent a lifetime developing those deep relationships that are so important when it comes to the later stages of life?

  • Of course some have acquired a knack to keep in touch. It involves remembering important occasions and lots of names and keeping everybody’s likes and dislikes at your fingertips. Personally, that all seemed like too much work for me and I also have not stayed popular. Lonliness has eluded me, fortunately, as long as I keep chasing my tail with various curiosities. One day I shall regret my selfishness, I’m sure.
    I approach each stranger in my travels as a friend and it seems to work out OK. That is approaching uninvited and finding some common ground….we all have lots in common really.

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