Loneliness a year-round problem for many seniors

Dec 26, 2019

“Anyone need a grandma for Christmas?” a woman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, wrote in a recent Craigslist ad that went viral. “I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts.”

For all the warmth and cheer that can be found around the holidays, there is a flip side we shouldn’t ignore, where the overwhelming focus on family and togetherness only makes more intense and obvious the loneliness of those who have no one.

There are more of them than you may think. In one story about the Tulsa woman, it was noted that the local Agency on Aging, serving about 7,000 residents over 60 in a four-county region, delivers Christmas stockings each year to about 600 nursing home residents who don’t get visitors this time of year.

And if they don’t get visitors for the holidays, they probably don’t get them much the rest of the year either.

The fact is, for many seniors loneliness is a year-round fact of life. It is a problem that Maine, one of the oldest and most rural states, should not look past.

Loneliness is bad for anyone, affecting mental and physical health, and lowering quality of life.

But it affects seniors in a particular way. As people age, they lose friends and spouses to ill health and death. Children grow up, develop lives of their own, perhaps move away. They become less mobile themselves, making a social life more difficult.

In seniors, loneliness is associated with illness and early death, substance use and dementia.

About 1 in 3 Americans over the age of 45 say they are lonely, and the number of people suffering from loneliness rises significantly after the age of 75. And with each year, Maine and the country as a whole have more people in that age group.

There are things we can do on an individual level to stave off loneliness. People who live active, healthy lives and stay engaged through work or volunteering are better able to maintain connections. Everyone can reach out to the lonely people on the periphery of their lives and make a small, daily difference.

But we also need to support the organizations, programs and initiatives that strengthen our communities, because strong communities pull people together.

That’s why we support housing that allows Maine seniors to move out of large, costly homes and into places near services, amenities and other people.

That’s part of why we support the expansion of public transit, so that seniors who don’t like to or can’t drive can still get around, and why some of that expansion has to occur in rural areas, where lack of transportation can lead to suffocating isolation.

And why programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to seniors and ensures they get a visit every day, and Phone Pals, which calls these seniors on non-meal days, are so important.

Christmas is a reminder of just how harsh loneliness can be. But we need to think about it more than just this time of year.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald, with permission.

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