We all need someone(s) to lean on
We have a friend — she went to Catholic school with Maureen 50 years ago — who suffers from a number of physical and psychological complaints. But the worst thing she has to bear is that she was not loved by her parents. Maureen knew the family, and saw for herself. Now in her 60s, the woman — I’ll call her Alice — is socially isolated and does not believe that she deserves better. She’s hungry for love, affection and attention, but feels unable to seek them outside the very limited acquaintance she already has.
Alice’s loneliness and isolation are no less real for being self-imposed. And although only she can change the situation, it is not truly one she has chosen, because she feels she has no choice. She’s unlovable in her own eyes, and this poor self-estimate keeps her from reaching out to people who might become friends.
And then there is the woman I interviewed for a story the other day, Juanita, who is just a few years younger than Alice. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 13 years ago, and had symptoms of the disease for decades before that. Nevertheless, she ran a daycare for many years with some help from her husband, Leon. When she was younger, she enjoyed a variety of sports, raised a family; even today, she seems to love life.
A couple of months ago, she was told by a doctor that she would never walk again — she is currently confined to a wheelchair — but she told me, with a gleam in her eye, “I want to defy it.” These days, she’d love just to be able to stand at her kitchen sink and wash dishes.
Juanita has embarked on a program of physical and occupational therapy; providers come to the house, and her husband helps her with exercises to strengthen her legs. He also accompanies her to medical appointments, stays current on information about her illness and is her constant supporter and cheerleader.
And Juanita’s family and friends are organizing a benefit to help with her medical expenses.
Juanita and Leon don’t live in a fancy house and they don’t have a lot of money. They’re less well-off than Alice, and she isn’t rich, either. The crucial difference between them is that Juanita has a huge amount of love and support in her life, while Alice has almost none.
Having a background like Alice’s isn’t the only way a person can drift into social isolation. Illness, lack of mobility and loss of family and friends to death are risks we all face. And a quick Internet search reveals that social isolation — defined as the complete, or near-complete, lack of contact with others — has been found by researchers to increase an older person’s risk of dying.
For example, an article by Steven Reinberg on the WebMD website about a British study released in March says, “‘Social contact is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The scientific evidence is that being socially isolated is probably bad for your health, and may lead to the development of serious illness and a reduced life span,’ said lead researcher Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London. 'There is also research suggesting that loneliness has similar associations with poor health,' he said.”
The article continues, “To look at the risks of loneliness and social isolation on dying, Steptoe's team collected data on 6,500 men and women aged 52 and older who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging in 2004.
“People who had limited contact with family or friends or community were classified as socially isolated. The researchers used a questionnaire to assess loneliness, which was described in background information in the study as a person's ‘dissatisfaction with the frequency and closeness of their social contacts, or the discrepancy between the relationships they have and the relationships they would like to have.’
“During nearly eight years of follow-up, 918 people died and social isolation and loneliness both predicted an early death.
“Social isolation, however, increased the risk of dying regardless of one's health and other factors, while loneliness increased the risk of dying only among those with underlying mental or physical problems, the researchers found.”
Elsewhere in the story, Steptoe sums up one of the main lessons from the study: “… [M]aintaining social contacts among seniors and reducing isolation may be particularly important for their future survival.”
It’s worth remembering that the benefit of connecting with other people goes both ways.