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Thoughts on Supporting Our Elders

In today's newsletter, I mentioned that I'll soon be giving a talk to some students that will touch on the growing epidemic of loneliness, isolation, and depression among the elderly in developed countries. I included a request for some feedback from our readership. Specifically, for those in their 60s and beyond, I asked the following two questions:

What do you value most at this point in your life?

And thinking back to earlier seasons of your journey, what would you do differently if you knew what you do now?

I'm immensely grateful for the flood of messages that have come pouring in throughout the day, and with this spirit of gratitude, I share some of them below with trust that they will serve as valuable insight and inspiration to visitors of this blog. To protect everyone's privacy, I am only including a first name or first name initial with each message shared.

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Hi, Dr. Ben.

Having worked with elders in the Los Angeles area while running a senior center, it is my observation that the last leg of life’s journey is somewhat ironic. At age 67, I realize that I finally have a more workable understanding of what true love is and fewer people in my life with whom to share it. As the ego wanes in our later years, our hearts can open wider. I know so many seniors whose loneliness is all the more acute given their recently amplified capacity to love. There must be a way as a society to tap into this loving energy and assuage the isolation of these dear souls at the same time.

Best wishes for success in this work!

- Sherry

***

Dr. Kim,

I think the topic of the talk you are planning to give is a wonderful and very timely topic. I am a 63-year old with no family other than my 28 year old son. The two most important things to me, after my relationship with God, are serving other people and friendships. But, similar to the topic of your talk, I wonder, if I were to fall ill or have any other severe type of problem, who, if anyone, would be there for me, which is very scary.

Based on my life experience, what I would tell young people, in addition to telling them about the need of older people for companionship and involvement in life to prevent depression and isolation, that as they are moving through adulthood, especially if they don't have solid, healthy families, that they need to find their own "tribe", others of all ages who share their interests and their passions. Based on my experience, I don't believe that one needs to put the expectations of their family origin first (which is what I did and what I regret) because, as you age, those people will not always be there and eventually will be gone entirely, and pleasing them is not the reason you are put on earth. I know that this might sound a little cruel and heartless, but it is not intended that way. It is just that after a certain age, one realizes how not being true to oneself, one's purpose and passions, and letting other people influence what you choose to do in life and who you choose to it with, will lead to regret.

I would also tell young people that the way to tell if someone truly loves you, be it your parents, other family members, friends, or potential partners, is that they want you to develop yourself according to your interests, to pursue your talents, and to become the best person you can be. I would tell them that if someone wants you to be subservient to their plan for your life, that is not genuine love.

Lastly, I would tell young people to remember to always include people younger and older than themselves among their friends. One will have been or has yet to be all of those ages, and there is something to learn, at any age, not only from people in one's own generation but from people both much younger and much older than oneself. Associating with people older than oneself will give you perspective on the journey of life and associating with people younger than oneself will keep one in touch with the changes in the world, which are happening at an ever more and more rapid pace.

Hope this is helpful. Best wishes on your talk and your mission.

- Linda

***

Hello,

My answer in a nutshell is “turning inward” and living a serene lifestyle with quietude, contemplation and beauty.

Going here and there, joining multiple exercise groups, dashing out for one activity after another, volunteering until I drop, hold no more interest for me. I have named my home “ Seraphic Homestead” and my aim is to fulfill this ideal.

I meditate, reflect, pray, read, write, listen to exquisite music, interact with likeminded people, go to contemplative worship, and enjoy outdoor exercise...these are my pleasures. My next anticipated joy is adding a puppy to the mix this Spring!

Best of success, Dr. Kim, with your work on this project,

Cynthia

***

My mom who is to be 84, says she cherishes family the very most! Spending time with them and talking to them. I’m 60 years old and think that one of mom’s best acquisitions was her iPad. It allows her to be in touch via FaceTime with all her kids, grandkids and siblings! It also fills her time when there is no company.

- Diane

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Dear Dr. Kim,

What a great goal you have. I am over 70, but I have an active life and several close friends and a large social dance community. We all keep each other going. I also have an art (classical music) and believe that folks who have an art have something to keep them actively engaged as they age.

But I have friends who are isolated and have witnessed some of the causes. Some people--particularly women--focus mainly on their children all of their lives, even if they also work. Then they feel lost when those children leave home to start their own adult lives perhaps having to move away from their hometowns for work. To top it off, many parents value independence above all, instilling it in their children and striving for it in their own lives. But this goal ends up backfirin as the traditional role of seniors living with or near their adult children and grandchildren and playing a strong mentoring role for the entire family is lost. Children without grandparents nearby are at a decided disadvantage

I've seen men lose their life force when they retire. They invest themselves totally in their work and colleagues and have nothing to fall back on when they are no longer needed by their companies.

Both men and women tend to sacrifice their health and personal interests to others during their productive years and so are not the best they can be later in life.

My advice: keep moving, develop healthy lifestyle habits, participate in many interests, stay connected with family and friends, establish a role in your offsprings' life early on (not through asserting authority but through connected communication), develop an art and watch your self talk. And know that it's okay to be vulnerable, to ask for someone's help.

Hope this message helps someone live a better life as they age.

Namaste,

Marsha

***

At 77, I value most not taking any prescription drugs and being proactive about my health. I always look for causes, not pharmaceutical band-aids. I have had very bad experienced decades ago with prescription drugs and so I have looked for alternatives. Therefore I do yoga and Pilates and can keep active.

- Alison

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I just turned 70 and will be moving to a new area. Having a network of friends is very important to me and other people my age. I am single with 3 children who live in various places. I am moving to be closer to my oldest son and his family but also because I have friends there. I think that people today move to where their jobs send them and it is hard to keep connected with family as much so activities with friends becomes very important. Living where I do now with few friends that care to go out to do things has caused me to be inactive and it has harmed my health in many ways. I try to exercise and keep active but there is not much to do, especially alone. I would love to see what you say about this issue and maybe there will eventually be ways (like Meetups) to have older people connect. What I see so far are only inactive get togethers.

- C.

***

Feedback from a 62-year old female:

Wow! I never thought it would be like this! I was a social butterfly in my 20's and 30's. I married a man who could not father children, and I said, as long as we are together I can live without children.

Boy, was I wrong! Our relationship crumbled when I was in my 40's. From there it was too late to have children.

As the years went by I have lost many, many dear friends due to sickness or accidents.

I have only a few friends left, although they are busy with families and such, I find myself alone most of the time. I tried online dating but it seems the men that are interested were catfishing scammers! I got really good at spotting them, yet, I found it so cruel that the scammers were there only to take advantage of lonely people who are only looking to fulfill the emptiness in their lives.

I find I sleep a lot these days.

- C

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I am 70. My husband died October 24th. Sudden death. Sudden death is not kind to those left behind. So much un-said, so much unknown.

Will I ever have a life worth living again? At this moment, I do not think so. My husband was my world through the good and troubled times. Now, I am simply left behind.

I did have a visitation the night before last. So happy to see him.

So sad now,

G.

***

Hi Ben -

I am 75 and just wish my 2 children would call me more often. Say, take it in turns and give a call once a day. I had a stroke 6 months ago and live in fear of having another with no one around.

It appears that I only hear from them when they want me to babysit.

In retrospect, I wish I had called my Mother more often even though she was in another country.

Enjoy your newsletters immensely

Best wishes,

J.

***

Hello Dr. Ben Kim! I am 64 years old and suffer from major depressive disorder, my friends hardly believe it!! What I do is I walk about one hour mostly every day, I eat as healthy as I am able, and I get my rest as much as I can. I feel so much better having done this for about 10 years now. Exercise is really the most beneficial, I think.

I have been divorced for 18 yrs. and occasionally I feel lonely. Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the answer . . . I am never really alone! Going to church weekly helps me have a much better week also. I limit my time with toxic people including family members.

I help others when I can. I force myself to get out to avoid isolation at times. I work part-time and that is helpful financially. I also take a class or two at the local Community College so I can get a better job and to keep the gray matter going, lol! I have three animals and they keep me company and I find that rewarding.

Having to do things differently, I would go to college earlier in life and get a good job. Learn about my body and take better care of myself earlier in my life. I would, most definitely, have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ at a young age.

I am so very grateful also. I look for the blessings in every situation. . . as long as I remember too!

I think what you are doing will be very rewarding and such a nice thing to do!

Hope this is of some help to you.

Sincerely,
D.

***

Hi Dr Ben,

First to say how much I enjoy your emails full of great advice. I do love the exercise videos in particular.

At age 78 I currently live in a regional city with my husband of 52 years (length of marriage not age of husband) in Australia with 2 daughters and 3 grandchildren a 1 hour drive or train ride away in the capital city Melbourne and son a flight away on the beautiful island of Tasmania. Our friends are scattered around the country as we have moved interstate so many times due to my husband’s job.

Arriving in Geelong as retirees 5 years ago knowing no one and once again organising my life I joined the U3A and Parkrun. These have to be the answer to any older person's loneliness.

U3A is $60 a year and unlimited classes in so many fascinating subjects and Parkrun which is a weekly 5 km timed walk or run is completely free.

This year at U3A I will be studying art, Irish literature, the works of Shakespeare, mandolin and Russian literature classes. I will be teaching one tai chi class and 2 qigong classes as I have done for past 5 years. So much fun, so many interesting tutors and students.

With Parkrun I occasionally volunteer as a marshal as it is entirely run by volunteers. The oldest parkrunner I have come across personally is in the 80 to 84 age group and he comes in 10 mins before me. An inspiration!

U3A and Parkrun are, as you probably know, worldwide organisations.

What would I change in my life, nothing, I wouldn’t be here now in my very happy life if I changed anything in the past. My children and grandchildren are the most treasured and loved parts of my life and everything has led up to this present moment.

Thanks again for all you do,

Know that you are truly appreciated.

Sandie

***

Hi Dr Kim

I am 70 years old and, since I retired early. in 2004, I have had to reinvent myself, particularly after I moved to Penticton BC and found that move was a mistake.

I became very depressed while there even though it is a nice place and I did make friends. I found myself sinking further and further into what I called 'a dark hole'.

Upon my return, I had to decide how I was going to live my life to get out of that hole. The most important step was finding activities to engage in within my community to stave off loneliness and depression.

To that end, I took drum facilitation lessons and became a drum facilitator with 14 other people. We go into the community to facilitate 'drumming for health' sessions. We usually go in pairs and organizations can loan our drums to make this happen. I also book the drum circles for whatever organization asks be it a business, senior facility, library, schools, cubs, scouts, Alzheimer Association., Red Hat Ladies'....well, you get the picture, just about any group that would like to try drumming, young or old.

I also joined a Seniors' Centre and would encourage anybody who is alone and/or lonely to do so. They offer so much! Fitness, Dance, Yoga, a variety of General Interest Classes including painting, bridge, other art activities, creative writing, needlework, drumming, language classes, spirituality, genealogy, guitar and other musical instruments, nutrition and other health related issues, theatre/drama, astronomy, jewelry making, quilting, journaling, woodcarving....the list is endless!

And then there are workshops and seminars, computers and technology, and a vast array of recreational activities...name a card game and they're sure to play it! There is Camera Club, a variety of sports, chess, choir, billiards, poker, walking...again, the list is endless!

Then there are special events held at the centres including Bingo, Men's Night Out, Breakfast and a Laugh, card tournaments, special guests to entertain e.g. Elvis Impersonator, travelogue, tea party, Robbie Burns night...

I could go on and on. There are trips scheduled too, to theatres, visits to local venues, etc.

The prime purpose for all of this is 1) get out of the house 2) have a laugh and some fun i.e. socialize 3) learn something new or build on something you already know i.e. work your brain.

So....I would encourage anyone who feels isolated and alone to visit their local Seniors' Centre and get started. There are also opportunities to volunteer and share your own talents and abilities with others. Makes you feel useful and your work is greatly appreciated.

Hope this helps a little with your talk.

Ernestine

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Dr Kim, I saw in your online newsletter that stated one of your goals for the new year is helping the elderly and asking for input on this subject.

I am a senior citizen myself (62 years old) and I also work with senior citizens in my community - I operate a non profit organization that provides vet care assistance to the senior companion animals of senior citizens living on a fixed income who otherwise would not be able to afford the care for their older pets, who are often their only source of love and companionship.

I find seniors living alone, either widowed or never married, feel very isolated and lonely, especially those who are homebound due to health issues. Most no longer drive and taking public transportation can be challenging for them. They feel forgotten, like nobody really cares. I have often thought of starting a phone calling network (maybe through my church) that reaches out to seniors once a week by phone to check in and talk with them, make sure they are ok, and, if open to it, pray with them. I know the seniors I work with would love nothing more than to just go out for coffee or soda and talk to a real live human being who truly cares about them. Such a simple thing but virtually no communities that I know of provide any real services to seniors.

Seniors that I work with struggle just to pay their rent; they are not eligible for food stamps to cover food (no children) and struggle to cover the cost of pet food (often sharing their own food with their pet). Our organization actually provides resources for free pet food...but accessing it can be very challenging for them as the pet food pantry is only open 2 evenings a month, night time rides from friends or neighbors are more challenging to access than those during the day.

There are so many non profit organizations that support children, single moms, and those who are drug and alcohol addicted; you would be hard pressed to find a single organization that supports seniors in any community and provides any necessary services. For instance there are coats for kids programs that provide warm coats for low income school children but nobody really thinks about the low income senior who does not own a warm coat during the cold winter season. There are toys for tots and similar program for kids that offer Christmas gifts for low income children but there is no such program for senior citizens - our seniors would be happy with simply getting a card in the mail.

I truly believe that until community organizations serve both ends of the spectrum, young AND old, they are not truly serving the people in the community they represent. In the meantime it is up to individuals to make up the difference in the lives of our senior citizens (many of whom are also veterans who served our country.)

Thank you for caring!!

Cathie

***

I am at the local senior center here in Hagerstown, Maryland. This is where I use a computer. Also, my main contribution was thanks to my sister, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She visits me in the spring. But in the meantime, I volunteer at the local Humane Society. I love cats. I have some idea of what it would take to care for an animal - like caring for a child - and I am unable to do so. But, when I go to the Humane Society, I spend between 1 and 2 hours there - this is my "cat therapy." I can play with them, and if they like the idea, I can hold them. A sweet and cuddly cat is great for both of us. It socializes them, and gives them the help they need to be adoptable. I can tell if I meet a particularly sweet animal that it won't be there too long. In this way, I don't feel the loss of a "friend." I just tell them to be good, and that someone will come in there, fall in love with them, and take them home. I met 2 cats last week that "sing" when someone comes in the door to the free roaming room. The orange one of the 2 was particularly vocal - and I can make a very convincing cat sound. I said, "All together now - sing." And they did.

This is wonderful for me. I think this would be very helpful for people who need company. Volunteer at your local Humane Society. "Take 2 cats and call me in the morning."

- Gerald

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Hello Dr Ben

I simply want to emphasize the importance of being involved with grand-children, if one is lucky enough to have them. My husband and I moved from a lovely heritage home where we had raised our 2 children, in order to be within 15 minutes of our children/grand-children's homes . We are in daily contact with them and the physical and emotional benefits are immense.

Thank you for your wonderful emails.

- Claire

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Hello Dr. Kim,

In reference to your newsletter regarding your upcoming talk to high school students. I’d like to share something I have learned from my 91 year old father. We are so blessed that he is physically and socially active. He lives alone and drives to and from the gym each morning. Recently we spent the day together as I joined him in his daily routine. What I noticed is that he has made friends with almost every person in his routine and knew their names and details about their life. The trainers and attendants at the gym, receptionist at the hearing aid office, Costco pharmacist, waitress at his favorite restaurant and checker at the grocery store. They all greeted him warmly by his name.

The one thing younger people can offer the elderly is very simple. Eye contact. A listening ear. Patience if they have to repeat themselves. Let them know they’re not invisible. A simple kind acknowledgement goes a long way in a sheltered life.

Best regards,
Karri

***

Hello Dr. Kim,

I am a 63 year old woman who is very concerned about the loneliness I see amongst our elderly. I have my parents who are in their nineties and I am grateful that they are still with us. They had to go to a retirement home last year and I found my normally outgoing and social Dad has become self isolating and quite lonely (he has some new cognitive issues). The RH staff do everything to encourage them ( my mom has dementia) to come and participate in the social events but my father won't go. My dad keeps in touch with his two surviving sisters and my mom's sister in Vancouver and he has a younger friend ( 80's) who visits. Overall my parents are fortunate to have three supportive children and grandchildren in regular contact. The RH staff tell me there are many residents who rarely get visitors even though they have family in the area!
For my part I have learned that family and our connections to members of our tribe is very important as we age. Keeping in touch with younger members such as nieces and nephews is as important as being there for older members. I maintain close ties with the 'kids' We also have two adult sons(27 and 22) and a grandson ( 14 mths) who brings us great joy. Yes we were married 15 before we had our first child.

I still work full time and find developing relationships with younger colleagues is very rewarding as well, they open up my world view in many ways. So having contact with others across the age spectrum is very important as we age, not just acquaintances but people you actually socialize with.

What would I do differently? I would have spent more time in school, perhaps getting an advanced degree. I would have travelled more and lived on my own. I would not have gotten married at twenty. That's way too young to commit ( we are still married 43 years) and I would have learned to be more self reliant.

These are not regrets just advice I would give a young me.

Thank you Dr. Kim for your amazing column. I always find something to reflect on when I read it.

Best,
Allison LeBlanc
Ottawa,ON

***

Hi Dr. Kim,

I have been following you for many years and you have personally given me helpful advice. I'm a nutritionist and I often refer people to your website.

Lately, I have been feeling called to address the growing loneliness issue but I'm not sure how. My mom is 90 and lives on her own far away from me. She has arthritis, macular degeneration and can hardly hear at all, but her mind is good. Her only outings are to the doctor or grocery store. I'm appalled and saddened at how the rest of my family disregards her and loses patience with her. They have even stopped taking her to the store because she's "too slow." I am 56, have raised three daughters (now grown), and have gone through a divorce and I have to make a consistent effort not to fall into a depressive, lonely state myself. Thankfully, I have many options, but many people to do not. I work full time and teach Zumba Gold on the side to a few 55+ communities and it's very rewarding. It helps the residents in many ways, especially socially. However, there is still the dilemma of how to reach the ones who don't or can't participate.

For myself, I value any time at all with my children and grandchildren. They are all so busy with their lives; I would love to be included more but I understand. I remember when I was that busy and did not give my parents enough of my time, even though they were only 30 minutes away. In my defense, I often tried but they lived in a very small world and declined most of my invitations. It made me angry at that time. Now, if I could do it again, I would be more compassionate and I would find another way to include them more. At this point, I live very far away and I'm unable to see my mom more than twice a year because of time and money constraints.

It would be great for young people to get involved locally with some senior programs. Also, I think it would be helpful to tell the young people to notice their elders. Unfortunately, they become invisible. A smile and a kind word would go a long way.

Our culture needs to value and respect its elders more and it has to start somewhere. Why not with the group to whom you are speaking? I think it's wonderful that you are addressing this issue.

Sincerely,

B. W.

 
 

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Comments

Most of what I would say is echoed in the previous comments. I am 77,and deaf. My husband of 55 years died at age 74 almost 3 years ago. He was bed-bound for 7 1/2 years before he died. Though I miss him, of course, I have yet to get lonely or bored, even though I have little intimate contact with anyone on a regular basis. I have never lived alone before, so it's a new experience for me. I have so many personal activities that keep me busy, and a few light weight social activities that keep me from being completely isolated: Zumba classes, meditation group, music of various sorts (dancing, singing, drumming, listening with MP3, etc.), I volunteer to shop for a disabled friend, I teach three qigong classes. Because of genetic high cholesterol, I have developed a heart problem so I tried an interesting experiment recently: I asked my two sons and one grandchild, my 87 yo sister, a sister-in-law, and two close friends to text me once a week on a specific day to check on me and I would text them back and also "check-out" at the end of the day. I find that all the younger people have good intentions, but in general are too busy and scattered to remember. So I text them twice a day once a week. It means a little more contact with those I care about as I continue to develop local relationships, which is particularly problematic for me with a hearing loss.I have decided if I want monitoring, the Friendship Line is probably the best choice for me. I think it is important for the elderly who have the mental capacity to do so, to think thoroughly about their declining years and talk with children, siblings, others who might be responsible for making difficult decisions. I think the strongest factor in my all over health is my attitude. I love myself, I love being with myself, I set goals and intentions for myself and they don't always include other aspects of myself such as other people. I have a dog and cat that cuddle up to me. I can still drive myself places. I love my life and wish for nothing else but continued health to enjoy it. And when that declines, I know I have the capacity to accept that too, and adjust to it until it is my time to go.