I did a Google search to find information for today’s blog. The query was: “statistics on how many older adults are home alone during the holidays”. The results Google returned were striking for several reasons.
Top of the list was, “Older Adults Living Alone Statistics” followed by, “The Holiday Season: End Isolation Among Seniors”, which was followed by a litany of sites on managing loneliness among the elderly.
Here is my question: Why did Google’s algorithm equate “alone” with “lonely”? Google is certainly not at fault. It is an assumption made by many, and it is one that needs to be challenged.
Loneliness and Aging
There is no doubt that people of all ages experience loneliness. It is a psychologist’s trope that you can feel lonely even when surrounded by people who love you. It is also true that isolation is problematic. Humans are designed to attach to one another. The trick here is to not assume that being alone is lonely and being isolated is a problem especially for aging adults.
These are important distinctions with clinical implications. My choice to be alone may be influenced by situational factors such as lack of money or transportation, or psychological factors such as grief, low self-esteem, anxiety or depression. And, it can just be my choice.
Home for the Holidays
In my years as a clinical psychologist, I had many patients share their resentment, anger, sadness, and fears around unresolved issues within their family. These issues typically were exacerbated by the pressure to “come together” as a family for the holidays. As related by my patients, the gatherings often sparked memories of the contradictory experiences of what was “supposed” to be a loving gathering with the realities of alcohol-fueled tensions, or critical and disappointing comments made about weight, clothing choice, or behavior of children, grandchildren, or partners.
Granted, this is a self-selected sample, and there may be many of you who have enjoyed wonderful gatherings. I do not discount that. I do challenge the notion, however, that being alone for the holidays is “lonely”.
Perceptions of Aging
Many of the articles that popped up in my Google search suggested that lonely seniors were alone because of loss — loss of loved ones, poor health physically and psychologically and changes in residences or lifestyle. This reflects the common perception of old age in our culture, but it is a skewed one.
There are many Boomers who chose not to have children and not to get married. According to AARP, these solo agers make up about 12% of adults over 50! For this group, aging alone is a choice and one that offers its own set of challenges compensated by remaining independent, experiencing overall life satisfaction, and happiness.
Solo agers fill the gap of family with friendships. These friendships in many cases are more nurturing and satisfying than family of origin relationships. Companionship rather than relationship is often sought after, as many solo agers have no desire to get married, preferring to maintain their independence financially, while being willing to commit to deep and lasting friendships.
I am a solo ager. My husband passed away over a decade ago and I have no children. My parents are dead. I am an only child. I have learned to create community and treasure my connections with friends on my terms. I am not lonely.
How I Manage
As I have aged, I find myself less inspired to re-create the traditions and more content with the memories. I prefer to spend Thanksgiving by myself (at least for now), because I am not a fan of turkey or pumpkin pie. And Lord knows, the rest of the traditional spread is not on my diet.
The memories I have of Thanksgiving are far richer. Memories of finally being grown enough to sit at the adult table, even though I had to sit on a telephone book because I was so short. Memories of hosting meals with friends who were unable to be with their families. Memories of my husband creating chaos in the kitchen while making his mother’s recipe for stuffing.
My preference for being by myself is purely selfish. I don’t have to please anyone but myself and I can enjoy the things I truly enjoy without guilt. I can leave the dishes in the sink or I can get everything spic and span before I go to bed.
Over the years, friends have kindly invited me to join them for various holiday celebrations. I have learned to politely decline. I suspect their invitation is genuine, wanting me to join with them in their customs. If it came out of feeling sorry for me, then I hope they will set those feelings aside, for there is nothing to be sorry for. I am choosing to be by myself.
Challenging the Stereotype
We need to challenge the stereotype of aging adults being isolated, cut-off, and depressed. It is a sad fact that while this is true for a percentage of our population, it is not true for all. In limiting old age to physical, emotional, and situational decline, we blind ourselves to the reality that actually exists. There are many thriving and vibrant aging adults among us.
We need to incorporate aging adults into every aspect of our communities, recognizing they have a role to play and contributions to make. We must call to question the wisdom of segregating elders into age-exclusive communities, assisted living facilities, and long-term care homes and create intergenerational communities that are elder-friendly.
How I Prefer to be Treated
I do appreciate people asking me to their gatherings, so please, invite me to join you, but don’t be offended if I decline. Instead, feel free to drop off some left-overs. Or, you can call and wish me a happy holiday or let me know when it would be a good time for me to call you! Maybe we could have a conversation about getting together, just us, either before or after the holiday. When you do this, I will feel included and glad that you have honored my choice.