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Loneliness

Why Getting Older Takes a Village

Who will we call when we need help and why it makes us cranky.

Key points

  • Will your grown kids be there for you when you need them? And will they want to help you if they can? Sometimes a crisis shows us who they are.
  • Gender-based expectations are typical of most parents of grown kids. We think daughters will be more helpful than sons; it's often true.
  • While friends may be the family we choose for ourselves, what if we have neither? Are we doomed to loneliness?
  • What can you do to stem the loneliness epidemic among the elderly? Start by reaching out to those around you—your neighbors.

We don’t have kids so that they’ll take care of us, but when we need them, which happens more often the older we get, the crankier both generations become. We pride ourselves on our independence, so asking for help is difficult. And our vulnerability scares them as much as it does us.

Having just been through a very scary and unexpected health crisis, I’ve had an up-close and personal call-and-response experience with my two adult kids, a son and a daughter, and observed how all of us met the moment. Frankly, my expectations were based on their gender and availability: No matter how many times we played Free to Be You and Me when they were growing up, I assumed she’d help me bathe and dress and he’d pick up the walker and run the dog and turn the mattress on my bed. In other words. she’d feel and he’d do or provide.

She arrived the night before some scary and hastily scheduled lung surgery and stayed for five nights thereafter, one more than we usually manage before we get on each other’s nerves. I said nothing when she pronounced my apartment a mess; and rather than do it herself she arranged for her brother to have it cleaned, then and monthly thereafter, something I used to treat myself to back in the day but haven’t lately.

And while I was in the hospital she directed him in fixing the things on my honey-do list that he’d long ignored and added some other tasks to it that I had. It wasn’t exactly feng shui, just moving the bed to the opposite wall so the streetlight didn’t shine directly in my eyes and stabilizing the precariously balanced TV on the dresser by hanging it on the wall, putting a dimmer switch in the living room and gluing a loose arm on my desk chair.

I didn’t see him at all until she left, not even when I was in the hospital, which annoyed her; as long as she was here, I didn’t need him, he told her, and besides, he’d just started a demanding new job. If I was critically ill, of course, he'd be there, and if I needed a nurse after she left, he’d pay for it, but once she’d gone back to her own home, a three-hour drive away, he came by a time or two and told me to text him if I needed anything and he’d drop it off on his way home.

The grandkids checked in by text and phone, and my friends dropped in with meals and books and flowers and tried not to make me laugh and dislodge the stitches. It’s a small building and word travels quickly; my close neighbors took over walking the dog and driving me to follow-up medical appointments until I could walk and drive again. I felt very well taken care of—very "peopled" with family and friends and very grateful for it.

I have several friends my own age as well as neighbors in my senior building that never had children; some never married, either, and live alone, as I do. When they die, there’s often no family left to mourn them. A woman on my floor had a heart attack while on a cruise by herself in Mexico and lingered in a coma until she died; she had left no next-of-kin information with the manager, and eventually someone from a nearby church came and cleaned out her apartment..

Particularly in this season, when the media focus on the epidemic of loneliness in our society, I worry about all those lonely people I know and the ones I don't, especially the least social, most seemingly isolated of them.

I call to wish those I know happy holidays, and they always sound as if they just woke up, no matter what time it is, and although I know all single introverts aren’t lonely, I still wonder who will take care of them when they need it. It may take a village to raise a child to adulthood, but if you’re lucky, you'll have one to get through the end of it too.

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