A researcher, physician and former 19th U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has, in recent years, written and spoken a great deal about what he calls an “Epidemic of Loneliness” in this country. He noticed that a growing number of his patients, especially his older patients, reported feeling alone, facing loss and somewhat disconnected from the broader world. This phenomena of loneliness and a feeling of loss is being observed on a broader scale as well. A study reported that if a person has more than two close friends, they are among a fortunate minority.
With this information in mind, I began asking people about the “epidemic of loneliness and loss.” Do they think there is such a thing? Is it growing? Are they experiencing it? And in these discussions, I have gotten a plethora of interesting replies.
A friend I asked about this responded very quickly. “I think,” she said, “that when we get older, we just face so much loss. At our age we have all lost people, through death or through distance, and it continues to happen, sometimes on a weekly basis as we read obituaries,” my friend continued. We began listing other losses that came to mind.
“I lose names,” she said. “I’ve never been good with names but it’s different now. Now I run into people whose names I should know but can’t remember. Usually, half a day later the names will come back to me but what good is that?”
I told her that I have the same problem with common knowledge questions. “I always loved watching Jeopardy daily, but I’ve lost my ability to answer the questions like I used to. I tend to say, ‘Oh, I know that one!’ but then I have to put the remote on pause while I try to dredge the answer out of the rusty file cabinets of my brain.” Do our synapses or brain plaque just slow us down? And, if so, will that slowing continue? My friend and I pondered that, being afraid of what it could portend.
As I’ve asked people about loss and sadness, there are avalanches of things people talk about losing — their hair, their relationships, their ability to use their hands as they used to, their driving privileges, their vision, their balance and more.
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I resonated with a man who mentioned his loss of height. I myself was 5 feet 4½ inches in high school, and last year I was shocked at the doctor’s office when they said I was “a little under 5’2.” I protested inwardly and when I got home, without telling my husband what had happened, I asked him to take my height. He got out the tape measurer as I stood against the wall. “You’re a little under 5’2”, he stated matter-of-factly. “No,” I moaned. It’s no wonder older people look so little driving those cars. We actually are getting shorter.
So, facing our losses and our loneliness, what can we do? I started asking that question and following are some of the replies.
Reach out to people rather than waiting for them to reach out to you. Join a cause you believe in. Do brain puzzles. Smile and laugh at least three times a day. Walk. Get a part-time job. Smell the blossoms. Volunteer. Visit your geographically distant relatives and friends. Go to reunions. Travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to go to. Many more ideas were offered.
And, there is one great tip for all of us who face loss and get blue. Every single day, we can think of the things that we haven’t lost. I have a friend who came down with a medical condition I’d never heard of before, a “Urethral Stricture.” When I asked her if she had ever had it before, she replied, “Ever had it? I had never even heard of it!” As my friend and I parted later that day, we noted, as we often do, how fortunate we are in many ways. She, who is on a temporary catheter, grinned at me and said, “Yeah, some days you should just be glad that you can pee!”
So here I am, glad that I can pee, glad for my children and grandchildren, glad that I hold so many people in my heart, and glad for good movies, good books, good food, good friends, and overall, a pretty good life.
Yes, amid loss and loneliness, there are many things we haven’t lost. And that is a gift worth remembering every day. What we have not lost. A treasure indeed.