In "Eleanor Rigby," John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously asked:
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
These are good questions. And I'll add one more: As the baby boomers get old, how will we cope with them all?
People of every age are lonely. According to one study examining over 3.4 million people, older adults aren't even the loneliest people; teenagers and young adults are. Then loneliness declines, according to Jane Brody in The New York Times:
According to Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, "If anything, the intensity of loneliness decreases from young adulthood through middle age and doesn't become intense again until the oldest old age."
But then it comes back with a bang, and it's really bad for your health. One study found direct correlations:
Subjects were asked if they feel 1) Left Out 2) Isolated or 3) Lack Companionship. Subjects were categorized as not lonely if they responded hardly ever to all three questions and lonely if they responded some of the time or often to any of the three questions. The primary outcomes were time to death over 6 years, and functional decline over 6 years on 4 measures: difficulty on an increased number of activities of daily living (ADL), difficulty in an increased number of upper extremity tasks, decline in mobility, or increased difficulty in stair climbing.
Conclusion: "Among participants who were older than 60, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death."
Loneliness and isolation among the old is a big problem now.
The British government found that the problem was so bad that former Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness, saying:
"For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with."
So if this is the situation today, what will the situation be when the baby boomers get older? One cause, according to Welbi, a Canadian seniors care company, is losing the car keys.
As seniors get older, they will eventually lose the ability to drive, and losing this freedom can be hard to accept. Some seniors also avoid walking in their community due to low walkability or fear of falling. If seniors are unable to drive and hesitant to walk, they may be reluctant to try other transportation options, especially if they don't know how to access them. This can easily exacerbate isolation if the seniors don't have family members with cars who live nearby.
The results of loneliness and isolation can be severe, and deadly.
Physical health can be affected by loneliness in a number of ways. Isolated seniors are more prone to serious illnesses like chronic lung disease, arthritis, and impaired mobility. Feelings of loneliness can cause seniors to engage in other unhealthy behaviours, such as overconsumption of alcohol, excess eating, and smoking, as a way of coping with the loneliness. Loneliness can also cause seniors to spend more time indoors, and avoid physical activity. This lack of exercise can lead to increased rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other issues.
What happens next?
The number of people considered lonely or isolated seems to vary depending where you look. A British study found 38 percent of seniors felt lonely, an American study says 40 percent. Multiply that by the 70 million baby boomers and you have a lot of lonely people.
Some believe technology can solve this problem. We've already discussed self-driving cars as a possible option, but there are a lot of techies proposing role-playing games, videos, Skype and other video platforms. Others are already testing robots that can keep you company, watch over you and even tell jokes. But techno-pessimists like Evgeny Morozov worry that the technology will be misused. He writes in The Guardian:
But wouldn't it be ironic if technology companies, keen to make our lives longer, also end up making them more miserable? After all, could spending your last years in the company of a seemingly funny robot – it has a joke for every occasion! – be as gratifying as technology companies claim? Or is the rhetoric of technology and innovation once again masking the inability – and, perhaps, the ultimate collapse – of socialised public institutions that were meant to deliver care of the more humane variety?
He worries that were are heading for "a thoroughly dystopian future, where corporations prolong our existence – it's so lonely and alienated that it doesn't really deserve to be called 'life.' "
It all sounds like my late mom was right. After my dad died, she took up bridge. She hated cards, but she knew that at least once a week she would be part of a group of four. It doesn't matter what it is, but being able to maintain social connections seems to be key. That's why I keep talking about cohousing and baugruppen and walkable communities; I worry about the 40 percent of the baby boomers, 28 million Americans, lonely and alone as they "age in place" in their suburban homes.
After starting with Lennon and McCartney, we'll end with Bette Midler:
And I'm standing at the end of a real long road
And I'm waiting for my new friends to come.
I don't care if I'm hungry or freezin' cold,
I'm gonna get me some of them.
'Cause you gotta have friends,
That's right, friends, friends.
You gotta have friends.