Loneliness can affect anyone, but because of inevitable losses, some loneliness is built into the aging process. As I watched my 90-year old grandparents grieve losses, I had to wonder how much fun it is to be the last one standing. My parents faced much the same situation. Mom, who once loved getting Christmas cards, found that not only did the number of cards she received dwindle, the ones that she did get often contained sad news of death or disease. As she and many other older folks have said, "aging isn't for sissies."

University of California San Francisco researchers recently published an analysis of a study conducted by the National Institute on Aging. The researchers concluded that loneliness can be debilitating to older adults and may predict serious health problems and even death. The study also found that being married wasn't a guarantee against loneliness. While loneliness didn't seem to contribute to early death in my family, the loss of friends, and eventually spouses, likely contributed to their failing health.

Lonely in a crowd

One can be lonely in a marriage. One can be lonely in a crowd. It's all about the quality of the relationships. People living in assisted living facilities and nursing homes are often lonely. While they live among plenty of people, these are not the people they've built their life around. They lack the intimacy of close relationships built over time. Good staff members work with people to help them feel needed and at home, but they can't heal the mounting wounds of lost personal relationships.

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Aging at home or in a facility?

Most people say they want to stay in their own homes as they age. For many, with proper support, this works. But there are exceptions, and my mother-in-law was one of those exceptions. Living alone in her condominium, even with my daily visits she'd become fearful and introverted. She drew her curtains and wouldn't talk to people. She became paranoid in the extreme. Once we moved her to an excellent nursing home, she bloomed. From the moment we entered the door and she was greeted by one of the nursing home staff, she relaxed. I believe that she finally felt safe. The staff encouraged her to play the piano once again, something she hadn't done for years. She sat with a special group at meals. She had found her home and never looked back.

Feeling useful

Healthy elders can often help their peers who are less fortunate. They can deliver Meals On Wheels, join the Retired Senior Volunteer Program or volunteer for hospice or other worthy organizations. Even elders who are less vigorous can still be encouraged to volunteer. If they can see well enough, they may be able to read a book to a grandchild or a group of preschoolers. They may want to become a foster grandparent. If elders live in a facility and can still walk well, they could push the wheelchair of less mobile friend when they go to the dining room for meals. Often, they can assist in decorating for the holidays, or take treats to other residents. If an elder feels he or she can contribute to the wellbeing of the group, the burden of loneliness can feel lighter.

Being heard

Our elders have a lifetime of family stories to share. Some people need no encouragement to talk, but others need to be drawn out. If family members or staff actively listen to the elders tell stories of their past, the elders may feel more like they still are part of an active life. This type of validation can help blunt the sharp edge of loneliness.

Just as the physical part of aging must be dealt with, so must the emotional side. We can't protect our loved ones against the pain of losing a spouse or lifelong friend. As a reality, some loneliness becomes inevitable as people experience a dwindling number of contemporaries.

We can look for ways to help people interact with others and to feel truly useful. We can listen when they feel like talking. We can show our love through touch and eye contact. If you know someone who is lonely, pick up the phone or stop in to visit. Bring a treat. Then ask questions, showing your interest. Helping to manage the effects of loneliness and isolation can ultimately contribute to better health and quality of life in your aging loved one.