Sadness and loneliness are normal human emotions that we should feel when we feel loss or lack of social connection, especially when we are grieving the loss of connection with friends or family who have died or moved away. Why are they normal? It’s because our emotions are our body’’s natural alarm systems. They’re telling us that something has gone wrong in our world. Our emotions tell us that we need to stop, pay attention, and take responsibility for doing whatever work is necessary to fix what has gone awry in our world.
The key words here are responsibility and work. I emphasize the word responsibility, because the fix for our emotional problems lies within us, not outside - not in external events or in depending on others to cure our loneliness for us. When it comes to loneliness, we need to learn to take responsibility for recognizing the things that we have lost, then go through the difficult work of grieving that loss and then gradually replacing the valued social connections we have lost over a period of time.
Thus, the solution to the problem of loss is a common-sense one - we need to work at replacing what we have lost. Having said that, I hear many of you shouting “It’s not that easy!”
You’re absolutely right - replacing major losses from our lives often isn’t easy, especially when it comes to friends and loved ones who have died or moved away. It takes work and perseverance over a period of time before we can overcome those losses. In fact, it’s probably much more difficult to overcome loss and loneliness now than it was in the past.
Times have changed drastically over the past 75 years, and those changes mean that people have to work harder at connecting socially than they did 75 years ago. But how can that be, when we have so many Social Media tools at our disposal, such as Facebook and Twitter? The answer is that I’m talking about REAL social connection - getting together in person and engaging in common activities with friends, neighbours, and families, and mutually communicating and sharing important details about our lives with each other. That’s something that social media like Facebook, Twitter, and even email can’t replace.
It was much easier for people, especially the elderly, to stay socially connected 75 years ago, when more people lived in closely-knit rural communities or smaller cities. Back then, you didn’t have to look any further than the local church, school, or community centre for most of your social activities. The majority of family members stayed and lived in the communities where they grew up. Families were larger. And the elderly continued to live very close to one or more of their children, often in the same house or on the same farm as their adult children, who were there to provide necessary family support. The end result was that it was easy for entire families to get together for social connection. It was also natural for grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles to interact frequently with young children and to be part of those childrens’ lives. And those children expected that it would be the same for them when they grew older.
But now, instead of large families living close together in small towns or rural areas, we have at least three generations of people over the past 75 years who have grown up in smaller families and ever-expanding cities. As adults, they often find it necessary to move away from where they were born in order to find work, or even to find an affordable place to live. Today, those adults and their children drive all over cities for their recreational and social activities, depending more and more on friends, neighbours, and co-workers for their social connection, instead of depending on their families of origin. Geographic and cultural changes have had a dramatic impact on everybody’s ability to stay connected to their families of origin. But this is particularly difficult for the elderly, since they had expected to be just as involved with their families when they became older, as they were with their aging family members during childhood.
So how does this relate to our discussion of loneliness? Sadly, many people still believe they will always be able to rely on the friends and family they had when they were young for their source of social connection when they are older. They fail to recognize the need for constant “social maintenance work” over the course of their lives, especially when friends and loved ones move away or are deceased. They often feel cheated, bitter, or resentful that things didn’t turn out the way they expected in their old age. They failed to notice the world changing around them, and they failed to see the need to be continually replacing the people who have moved out of their lives with new social connections. They failed to learn that many people have to work harder to stay in touch with their families of origin for their social connections, and to take responsibility for making additional connections with new friends and neighbours to complement the decrease in family connection that has taken place in society.
I’d like to conclude my discussion of loneliness by giving an example of some incredibly devoted couples I have seen over the years, who have been married for 50 to 60 years. Their marriages are the envy of many who never manage to remain married that long. Yet, too often, I see one member of that couple for counselling after their partner passes away. They suddenly come to realize that they did everything with their spouse, but had no other friends, activities, or social connections, apart from those they shared with their spouses. By that point in their lives, it has become much more difficult to make new connections from scratch, so I often see the remaining partner giving up hope, and giving up on life.
Sadly, these unfortunate survivors never realize that there was a common-sense solution that could have lessened their loneliness. They never learned that the people who are happiest in their old age are the ones who have learned the importance of making a lifetime commitment to continuously upgrading their social connections over the course of their lives. Those who do embrace this simple, common-sense principle, won’t have to worry about being lonely when they reach old age - they will just have different friends and different social connections that continue to bring them joy and happiness in their golden years!