Written by Bob Kleinfelder, Birches Assisted Living resident and senior editor emeritus of The Lions Club’s LION Magazine
Loneliness can be devastating to one’s physical and mental health. Studies have shown that loneliness is linked to both illnesses and functional and cognitive decline, major risk factors for early death. Loneliness can even lead to lack of a will to live, a recipe for suicide.
Why are some people so desperately lonely? The reasons are many. Social isolation because of physical impairment (the amputation of a leg, perhaps, or blindness or deafness), the loss of one’s job, a sense of uselessness when old age deprives a person of skills that were once a part of everyday life, and, maybe worst of all, the death of a spouse.
I was spiritually burdened with this, and it is an emotional scar that will never totally be extinguished. But now, living at The Birches, along with others who have experienced a similar life-changing trauma, has helped me cope with and accept this new direction in my life. Which brings me to the “bridge” mentioned in our headline—friendship. It is the link to mental, emotional and physical health, and it can be the antidote to the blight of loneliness and despair.
Do you know someone who suffers from loneliness because of a physical disability, old age or the death of a loved one? Have no doubt that you can form a link with that individual through personal visits and volunteering to bring him or her into social activities in the community, going shopping together or enjoying lunch or dinner. These will be spiritual awakenings for both the person you have befriended and for you personally.
Be aware that loneliness, the heartfelt feeling of abandonment, hurts. It hurts to such an extent that one feels that life has passed them by and there seems to be no reason to go on living. That’s where friendship comes in, that vital human link that holds out the hand of concern and caring for another.
Let us observe how friendship can bridge that seemingly bottomless gap to loneliness on August 6, which is National Friendship Day. It is a time of recognition for what each of us can do to help a lonely individual in our community who lives in desperate need of the companionship and reassurance. Working to make your fellow man feel needed is a good starting point when helping to bring another out of the suffocating confines of loneliness. Help others understand that their families, neighbors and community truly need their wisdom, knowledge and experience. Please note that enriching lives is a two-way street. We need one another!
Living here at The Birches, I recognize how sharing our commitment to physical and spiritual growth, our experiences and our heartbreaks most assuredly enhances our capacity to toss aside the “we’re just old folks” mentality and get on with the business of living our life to the fullest capacity.
Let us be clear on one thing, though; there’s a difference between loneliness and being alone. If one is living alone at home or in an apartment such as here at The Birches and has things to keep the body and mind active and still has friends, family and acquaintances to associate with, it’s not the same as being lonely. I was an only child so being alone never really bothered me, and still doesn’t. But there are those to whom being alone is simply dreadful. They take little pleasure in their surroundings or the activities in their communities. They have no motivation to do anything or to participate with others. In the extreme, they lack the will to live. These are the people to whom we need to hold out the hands of friendship and caring. National Friendship Day is a good time to put this resolve into action if there is anyone we know who suffers the pangs of loneliness
Their silent calls for help are, in fact, critical to answer, for research shows that the mortality risk of loneliness and social isolation is comparable to those of smoking and obesity. Those of us living here at The Birches and in other assisted living communities have built-in cushions against loneliness. All too many other people, however, do not enjoy this advantage.
This is why the bond of friendship is so crucial to ensuring their well-being. This bond will reward the recipients with the greatest satisfactions in life, a heightened self-esteem and an open door to see greater meaning and purpose in their lives. Simultaneously, it will banish their feelings of depression and hopelessness. And, I can assure you, it shall also enrich the self-esteem of those of us who extend the hands of friendship.
I would also like to touch upon one more point on this subject. There is, perhaps, no greater feeling of loneliness than being alone in a crowd. The social isolation felt is a weight that cannot be minimized. For a person suffering from this condition, being alone in a crowd, be it at a cocktail party, carnival, department store or any social event, the feeling of being isolated and friendless can be gut-wrenching. By the simple act of befriending such a person, you can accompany him or her to social activities, introduce them to others and thereby enable them to develop confidence in deepening social connections. August 6 can be a beginning of what may well be a year-long commitment to answering the needs of others.
Indeed, it is vital those who live in loneliness understand that there are people willing to help them in their times of greatest despair. Helen Keller addressed this link beautifully when she said, “It is better to walk with a friend in the dark than to walk alone in the light.” On National Friendship Day may we all help those in desperate need of a friend to begin walking along this, perhaps, long, long trail a-winding.
“An Insightful Lob by Bob” is a monthly column written by Birches resident Bob Kleinfelder. Each month, Bob will offer an inside perspective on life at The Birches and answer your most pressing questions about assisted living. Stay tuned for more insightful assisted living advice from Bob!