Older and Lonely in the Suburbs

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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.

Comments

  1. Soni Meyer

    March 8, 2017

    Marian,

    I agree with both your articles! Very well said. I really enjoy reading your material!

    Soni

  2. Fran Korten

    March 9, 2017

    Such a sad paradox. People willing to help; people needing help; but no connection. Does it raise the question of whether aging in place is a good idea? Might a retirement home provide the safety and connection people need?

  3. Twyla Dell

    March 9, 2017

    Yes, indeed. Carl and I live in a uol-de-sac of 9 houses. Since we moved in almost 35 years ago, we have made no good connections. I know I could call on them in an emergency, but we have no social ties. The original families who moved in in 1975 had a rousing good time being pioneers in the new suburb which was then the edge of the new world, but did not welcome newer arrivals as old ones moved or died away. We arrived in ’83, with two teen-aged boys. Original residents at the end of the street walked by us as we were unloading our things from the truck. I saw them coming and thought, “Ah, the welcoming committee!” Wrong! They walked within 5 feet of us and never acknowledged us. I said to Carl, “We have finally moved into a neighborhood so fancy, no one speaks to each other!” I meant it as a joke, but it has turned out to be true. We are at a polite standoff, I would say. The people at the entrance to the cul de sac are both Republican, though we have not discussed it. I invited both over to see my dog paintings last fall, and one couple did commission their dog for a “good neighbor price,” and the other neighbor clears our driveway of our increasingly meager snowfalls for which i pay him in bottles of white wine=1 bottle for every inch! But socially we don’t get neighborly. We are going to celebrate our 35th anniversary in July and Carl’s 93rd birthday and we’ll invite them all over to mingle with friends, former co-workers and relatives. We’ll see how many neighbors actually come. Keep up the good work!

  4. Marian Knapp

    March 10, 2017

    Hi everyone,
    I am responding to Fran’s comments about whether “aging in place” is always a good idea. The term aging-in-place has come to mean that people stay in their houses as they age. I, too, have wondered seriously whether this is such a great idea. I think it is a very complicated issue. Being alone in a house, even if there is someone else around can be quite hazardous.

    First, I think of “aging in place” more as trying to stay in a familiar community when possible. The problem is, that in a lot of communities, like where I live, the options to move to a safer, more appropriate place are limited. Three and a half years ago, I sold my house and moved into an elevator condo building – no more shoveling snow, and no more worrying about maintenance. However, there is a serious lack of elevator buildings here, and there is tremendous opposition to building multi-story, common-sense, age-friendly, and eco-friendly buildings that would be good for older people and for anyone else who doesn’t want to live in a mega-house. So, many voting members of my community are stopping sensible housing options.

    Second, the desire to stay in one’s house often translates to wanting to stay in control. We all want to stay in control of our lives, but that attitude can set up a scenario for disaster. I had to take over decision-making for a number of my relatives when it was clear that they were living in places that were full of hazards. When I made decisions contrary to their wishes, and force them to move, I hated having to do it, and they hated me for taking control. If they had made their own decisions earlier in their lives, they wouldn’t have lost their decision-making freedom.

    Finally (and there are a lot of other issues), the hard-core denial of the natural process of aging can be a prelude to a very bad situation. Many of us want to think that we are invulnerable and that we will stay young for a long time – maybe forever. Not true! If we can think logically about some possible – even likely – scenarios in the aging process we may extend our ability to stay in control. If we simply asked ourselves questions like.. What if I fell, or forget to turn the stove off, or couldn’t climb stairs what would I do? Being rational and facing some of these concerns sooner rather than later will lead to decisions that will keep us safer and hopefully give us some sense of security.

    Marian

  5. Still the Lucky Few

    March 14, 2017

    This is the first time I have commented on your articles, although I signed up to receive them a few weeks ago. I am enjoying your wise and helpful words! I live in a ‘condo community’, which is a compromise of sorts between a stand-alone house and a retirement home. This is not a new concept, since there are many condo complexes here. But what is different about this place is a determination to live here as a community, where no one is isolated and alone. Isolation is an option, if one is anti-social, but the majority of residents here choose to be involved.

  6. Marian Knapp

    March 14, 2017

    You are lucky to live in such a welcoming and inclusive community. I also live in a condo building but often people don’t reach out to meet each other. A few years ago several neighbors and I decided to have a “floor party.” We set a date and time, printed up some simple announcements, which we placed under people’s doors and with a little simple planning, we started a tradition. Most of us know each other now and we also know if someone needs help. We get together as a full group about twice a year. I has been lovely. Marian

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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