Senior citizens: Managing loneliness is crucial for happy life

Loneliness is one of the serious problems being faced by people of all ages.

Dr A K Sen GuptaUpdated: Saturday, September 24, 2022, 01:33 PM IST
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Senior citizens: Managing loneliness is crucial for happy life | Pexels

Loneliness is one of the serious problems being faced by people of all ages. Loneliness is a perception, psychological feeling of being in isolation, distant from others, being neglected while even in companionship. It often happens when a “substantial gap” exists between what a person’s quantitative as well as qualitative expectations from a social relationship/ companionship are and what actually happens on the ground. In other words, if a person thinks that his/her expectations from a “social relationship” are not being met, that results into a sense of “disassociation” or “emptiness” which is often termed as loneliness.

A person need not be physically alone to have a feeling of loneliness. A person may have a feeling of loneliness while in a group or social setting. It creates a sense of inferiority complex: “I am alone” or “I am being ignored” or “All have left me alone” or “No one really likes me”, amidst similar other negative feelings. This implies a sense of “inward aloofness” and strong “psychological construct”.

Effects of Loneliness:

Loneliness is a cause for many dreadful physical and mental diseases. As intensity of loneliness increases, so does the level of “cortisol” as a result of “high stress” emanating from it. And this causes several physical disorders including increase in sugar and blood pressure. If persistent for a long time, loneliness has potential to severely impact cognitive abilities. Depression is the natural causal impact. Research has shown that there is also a causal relationship between high level of loneliness and mental impairment including onset of dementia.

This shows that loneliness is a “silent killer” and cause of several life- threatening diseases and must be tackled at the right time before it is late.

Applicability for senior citizens:

Although loneliness is age neutral, it is quite prevalent among elderly people. Reasons are obvious; retirement from active professional zone, children shifting out because of their own life issues, diminishing number of acquaintances, demise of close friends/relatives, loss of spouse create a sense of vacuum amidst minds of many elders.

Physical solitude results in mental/psychological loneliness and the severity goes on increasing, if there is no adequate intervention. We saw serious impact of Covid epidemic when elderly people were not able to move out of their homes for a long time and that created a “sense of increased loneliness” among many of them. This is a common prevailing trend among many elders who leave alone either in their homes or old age centers and are not physically/mentally active. Many associated issues like mental impairment, decline in cognitive abilities, shrinkage of physical / mental strength are, to a large extent, responsible for increase in the spread of this dreaded menace.

Managing Loneliness:

In view of serious consequences of loneliness described above, it is imperative to manage it before it completely overpowers us. Once again it is to be reiterated that the onus lies squarely on “seniors themselves” to manage this hazard. Others can provide some helping hand or care. But the burden squarely lies on elders to manage their own sense of loneliness.

Some suggested strategies could be:

1. Keep Active: Loneliness usually attacks those elders more who are not active and have lots of idle time to think negatively about issues, episodes, incidents, broken relationships, loss of friends, etc. Hence the most important strategy is that elders must keep themselves active throughout the day. A daily routine of physical exercises, meditation, pursuing specific hobbies, etc. will possibly keep the mind active active besides maintaining physical agility.

2. Stay Connected: Since loneliness is a sense of aloofness or keeping alone to oneself, or a feeling of neglect by others and society at large, it is always preferable that elders stay connected. They should make it a habit to meet or at least talk where meetings are not possible, with family members and old friends.

This will help them in several ways: keep busy, remain mentally active, be cheerful, reduce stress, and pass time fruitfully without thinking. A diary can be maintained about the tentative list of people to be contacted and date / timings of contact. It will come handy for elders as they have a tendency to forget details at certain time. They should also try to be active members of senior citizen associations or groups like laughing / walking clubs.

3. Serve Society: This is crucial as it creates a sense of self-satisfaction and joy of giving. Elders can volunteer in their own society teaching/ mentoring children, help poor kids of serving maids, become part of NGOs and volunteers in charitable activities for deprived sections of society. Giving back to society / taking part in social work has its own merit and sense of joy that automatically brings down all negative feelings including those from sense of loneliness.

4. Be with Nature: Being with nature has its own benefits. Touch of warm sun shine, hearing the chirping of birds, feeling cool breeze of trees have all their soothing impact for anyone more particularly for elders with a sense of loneliness. Being in touch with nature has its own positive effects and brings lots of energy. Elders who can, should make it a habit to remain in close touch with nature for at least 30 minutes a day.

5. Take Care of a Pet: House pets are often found to be best friends of persons living alone. They bring all the love and comfort they have with human beings. Pets particularly dogs have been found extremely supportive and loving. These pets definitely help to remove the loneliness feelings from elders who live alone.

6. Talk to Strangers: The importance of staying connected was emphasized earlier to come out of problem of loneliness. However, as the “span of connect” comes down with advancement of age, it will be a good idea to develop new acquaintances. Elders may engage in talks with other elders of the same housing society or make friendship with new people. The usual safeguards and checks, however, need to be maintained. These “new social relationships” sometimes have a “magical effect” as elders start expanding their span of connect. Suddenly they may find new friends of equal thoughts, that may completely help easing out problem of loneliness.

7. Talk to Expert: If the problem persists, elders should not hesitate going to take support from an expert like counselor or psychologist or a medial practitioner. This will help to tackle the problem at professional level.

Way Forward:

Elders must be aware of the menace of loneliness. They should not take this as a simple occurrence as neglect of it without managing could be serious. Since it is a mental feeling of being neglected or rejected or social expectations not being met, a “strong resolve” is needed to counter it. Strategies suggested above may be helpful to overcome the problem of loneliness. Best way not to fall into trip of loneliness is, however, to remain active, connected and joyful. Life should be taken as it comes and should be enjoyed every bit of it. If this “mental construct” can be built, loneliness can never overpower us.

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