One of the most frightening realities of our own aging is the gnawing truth that, as we age, our circle of close friends and secondary relationships begins to shrink. Maybe slowly at first; the shock of a sudden phone call. Then, ever so slowly, the reminder of our mortality as we observe an ever increasing amount of illness and, sadly, loss. Longevity has many blessings, yet one of the challenges is that more of us may be living more years alone. A recent study by the census bureau noted that for people over the age of 75 almost a quarter of men and almost 46 percent of women live by themselves.
Recent articles in the New York Times concentrated on the impact of loneliness in elders. Studies have shown that this situation can lead to serious physical and mental issues as well as a higher rate mortality. We are social creatures and the more isolated we become, the greater the risk to our soul and psyche. Paula Span, in a recent “The New Old Age” blog noted senior geriatric social worker who said that “The need we have for our entire lives–people who know us, value us, who bring us joy–that never goes away”. One of great challenges as a society in these coming decades will be to insure that elders are not left alone, be it in their own home or in a facility.
One of our recent Jewish Sacred Aging pod casts featured Rabbi Mark Katz of Brooklyn, N.Y. who has just published a book on loneliness and the need for social interaction. Katz draws his thesis from the beginning of Genesis where, in Genesis 2:18, God comes to the conclusion that it is not good for Adam to be alone. I am sure that Adam had come to that same conclusion as well! Katz points out that from the beginning of our understanding of human development, relationships were needed and indeed, became one of, if not the most important aspect of life. Just think of the times in your life that became important and how special those moments became because they were shared. Likewise, how sad those moments were when people you had shared them with were no longer there when new moments arose. We need to be in relationship with others, and we need those relationships even more as we age.
One of the issues that congregations will increasingly face in these next decades, as Boomers age and swell the ranks of elders, is to make sure that no one is alone. This may require a concentrated effort on the part of many to call, visit and communicate with elders who may be living alone. Isolation and loneliness is becoming a characteristic of aging that we can fix. It just will take our own desire to remember one of the anthems of our own youth that spoke the lyric that “you’ve got a friend”. We all need them.