Sunday 18 February 2018

You're not alone in needing family and friends during golden years

'If I lived by myself, this would not be good' - Pope Francis
'If I lived by myself, this would not be good' - Pope Francis

Patricia Casey

On the way to work in Dublin I pass a very touching billboard advertisement for the organisation that provides housing for older people who are homeless. An older woman, wearing lipstick and nicely made up, peers out at us. She holds a china cup in her hand and has a sad but proud smile. I have tried to understand what the image of this lady is telling me while I make my way to the hospital in the snail-paced traffic. The message is mixed - it seems to me that she is at last being treated with dignity and has a friend to share a pleasant cup of tea with but there is a coyness about her that suggests her past has not been good.

ALONE is printed in yellow capitals beside her image. I have now discovered it is an organisation providing housing to homeless elderly people along with befriending and social activities. Clearly it is an organisation that understands the fears and reality of the lives of many elderly people. Its website indicated that it uses trained workers as well as volunteers to run its operation. On the face of it, ALONE is an organisation that appreciates the practical as well as the emotional needs of elderly homeless people and tries to provide for these.

The loneliness of the elderly is not so much forgotten about, as neglected in our rush to deal with the needs of future generations mired in drugs abuse, suicide, homelessness and mental illness.

One of the best advocates for the elderly and their potential to feel isolated is a high-profile and powerful man himself. He said: "It is not just a matter of wealth, it is a matter of personality: I have the need to live among people. If I lived by myself, perhaps somewhat isolated, this would not be good to me. A professor asked me that: why don't you go live there, and I answered him: listen, professor, for psychiatric reasons! But it's my personality. The apartment is not so much luxurious, [it is] quiet, but I cannot live by myself." These are the words of Pope Francis explaining his refusal to live in the luxurious Papal Apartments in the Vatican and instead live in a guest house nearby.

The problem of loneliness in the elderly is likely to increase as Europe faces a huge demographic and structural shift in its population. It is ageing and fragmented. People increasingly live alone and have little direct contact with family and friends whose geographic mobility takes them to far-flung corners in their own country and further afield.

Communication is increasingly indirect, online or by text message, rather than face to face. Some see retirement as a time to uproot and move to a warmer climate. On the face of it this seems appealing but it is a change that the world's expert on loneliness, Professor John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago, cautions against because of the loss of familiar friends.

Fear of loneliness is universal and understandable, since humans are social beings with a need to be cared for and to reciprocate this also. The dictionary definition of loneliness is of sadness resulting from isolation or the absence of companionship and is probably too narrow since for many, loneliness is not just the absence of company but the absence of a sense that one is cared for, loved and valued.

A study published by the Mental Health Foundation in Britain a few years ago explored some of these issues, with interesting and unpredictable findings. The report called The Lonely Society found that 11pc of the 2,256 people interviewed often feel lonely. Almost half believe people are becoming more, not less, lonely while more than one in three would like to live nearer to family and friends to see them more often. Unsurprisingly, women reported more loneliness than men (38pc vs 30pc) and 33pc identified a close friend or family member who is lonely. Thirty pc admit that they would be embarrassed to tell anybody. And the most surprising finding of all was that nearly 60pc of those aged between 18 and 34 reported feeling lonely sometimes or often as compared to 35pc of those over the age of 55.

A different form of loneliness is existential loneliness or the sense of a void and of inward emptiness. This emotion is not so much concerned with having no connection to other people but it stems from feelings within oneself, sometimes arising from childhood trauma, and often connected to the absence of a sense of purpose or meaning in life.

For the elderly, however, maintaining contact and relationships with others is particularly problematic due to frailty, hearing and visual impairment and financial constraints. Thankfully, most people have somebody who loves them. But for those who don't, like the lady on the billboard, we should spare a thought for them and for the organisation that assists them.

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