Every day, I drive down the suburban streets where I live. Sometimes I walk. Overall, cars far outnumber walkers – even if I consider the multitudes of people who are out with their dogs. Making my way down a street by car or on foot is a lovely experience. There is a variety of house styles from many eras. I see single and multiple family dwellings. Some places are in good shape and others are not. It is an interesting environment for reflection – especially if I am walking.
I can look at architectural styles and contemplate the shape of doorways, the placement of windows, or the structure of chimneys. There is a fascinating history lesson just by noticing the design of houses. I could stop for a moment and wonder what is behind a façade that I see from the street. What is happening inside just a few feet away and hidden from my sight?
In at least forty percent of the homes in my city there is someone who is age 60 and over. That means that almost every other house holds a senior. Right now there are more people age 60+ than there are kids in the schools, and this will be the case forever. We will never again be a community where young people outnumber older people. In 2020, 27 percent, and in 2030, 31 percent of residents will be elders. These numbers are from my city but this is happening all over the country.
In 2014, 43 percent of people age 80 and over were living alone. In a recent survey of older residents, 15 percent (2,800) said they didn’t feel as if they belonged to the community; nine percent (1,700) said they had no one to assist them if they needed help. Although a few thousand people are a small proportion of our 88,000 population the problem is very big.
In listening sessions and interviews, our Department of Senior Services and Council on Aging are hearing over and over about loneliness and isolation. Residents are identifying it as a major issue for themselves and loved ones. City Departments like Fire, Police, Parks and Recreation, and the Library, along with veteran, provider, and housing manager groups, are observing it also, and they see it increasing. The question is how to deal with it.
I live in a great place to live that offers so many opportunities to be involved out in the community – concerts, art events, fitness programs, civic involvement, and educational options – the list seems endless. There are programs, like the Library’s book delivery program, for those who are home-bound. Many of us take advantage of these wonderful things, but many don’t.
For those who can’t or don’t get out of their houses the risks for loneliness and isolation are great. There are reasons why older people stay at home alone and they include lack of transportation, physical or mental disabilities, financial constraints, confusion about what to do, or even deep-seated fear of not knowing what is on the other side of the door. A massive barrier to getting connected is that individuals don’t know what is available and, even if they do know, they have trouble acting.
We know that about 33 percent of elders in my city won’t ask for help if they need it. The desire to remain independent and in control is a formidable force that keeps people from acknowledging that they could be at risk by not reaching out. I envision myself standing on a sidewalk and looking at a door from the outside. There is someone in a room facing me, and neither of us knows the other is there. Most people, like me, are willing to help out, but there are lots of people who won’t ask. There is a serious gap between the existence of a significant need and the lack of a link to those who want to help.
I keep reminding myself that seniors living alone in these houses didn’t just recently float in. Chances are they have been there for a very long time. They arrived in migrations of families with young children and developed close friendships. Over decades, old-time neighbors left and new ones moved in. Without the common bond of kids, aging people lost close-by, intimate contacts. They became alone and lonely just by the simple process of aging in their homes.
There may be many ways to counter this isolation – from big community efforts to modest one-to-one caring. I like to start small with the “one” approach. It may be difficult to find a reason to attempt a relationship with someone and take a first step through someone’s entryway. But, there may be clues to a problem inside that may prompt a response. Newspapers are accumulating. Sidewalks are not shoveled. Trash barrels are still in the yard. Write a note and slip it under the door. “I noticed your papers are outside, can I bring them in for you?”
One simple action could reduce – by one – the number of people who are sitting behind that door feeling alone and isolated, and who have nobody to call when they need help.