I’ve met very few people who thrive on being alone. I was married to one for thirteen years. During that time I became increasingly anxious. He was a poet, self-absorbed and content when he barricaded himself in his study to write poetry that turned into slim chapbooks every ten years. If I didn’t remind him that it was Christmas, he would have forgotten all about it.
Anyone who has experienced loneliness dreads this time of the year, the holiday season, when tradition and commerce come together to promote celebratory occasions with family and friends. But what happens if you’re an older adult and your kids live far away, your friends have moved to sunnier climes, or you find yourself in a new location without much social capital?
What happens when those closest to us are no longer here?
As we age, loneliness can become more pernicious. As a woman in my thirties, I found methods to beat the loneliness I was experiencing at home with my poet-spouse. First of all, I worked at a feverish pace. Five days a week I was out of the house, focusing on getting the job done. By the time the actual holidays rolled around, I was intent on wrapping presents and putting a holiday meal on the table. I became adept at ignoring the feelings of depression that come with loneliness or more accurately with enduring the season without joy.
Eventually I began to experience the fight-or-flight response, which led to serious panic attacks. In the end, I left my husband and tried to build a new life based on close ties with family and friends, and an inclusive atmosphere at home.
Now that I’m older and semi-retired, I have more time and not just to drink my coffee in the morning or lunch with my lady friends, but to think about things, such as who and what really matters to me, what I have accomplished, and what legacy I will leave my daughter.
It’s when we are retired and have the luxury of considering the big questions in life that loneliness can hurt the worst. As reported in the recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, loneliness is more than a feeling. “For older adults, perceived social isolation is a major health risk that can increase the risk of premature death by 14 per cent.”
Although medical researchers have long accepted the dangers of loneliness, until now they haven’t been able to pinpoint its adverse health outcomes. Today University of Chicago psychologist and leading loneliness expert John Cacioppo is shedding new light on how loneliness triggers the fight-or-flight response.
According to Professor Cacioppo, lonely people have a less effective immune response and more inflammation than non-lonely people and that can ultimately make them sick.
A German commercial video about a lonely old man has gone viral on the Internet. An elderly gentleman is planning his Christmas dinner alone. None of his children are coming home for the holidays until they receive word that he has passed away. When they return home, they discover that their father is alive and the message was the only way for him to see his children during the holidays. The video is touching and not too corny to be real. This time of the year can be the most heart wrenching for those who are alone.
If you acknowledge that you’ll be lonely in the last two weeks of December, I do have a few suggestions based on experience. If you know it’s going to be a difficult holiday season for you, don’t leave social arrangements to the last minute. There are other people searching for company as well as you. I’ve always found that holding a dinner party is the best way to get folks together. It doesn’t have to be on Christmas day or New Year’s Eve. Select a date when others aren’t committed to family events. Send out your invitations by email, which is less onerous than phoning, and press the send button early, before your invitees are booked.
Another solution is to travel. A cruise is a great way to meet new people and celebrate the holidays. See if you can find a travel companion and pick a large table for the second seating for dinner. There are usually eight places at the largest tables and the most interesting folks prefer to eat late. Cruise lines are also holding single’s cruises that are becoming increasingly popular. Check for last minute deals.
Volunteering is the most gracious solution to combat loneliness. There are a multitude of opportunities to help out with the less fortunate. Again, don’t leave it to the last moment. Contact the mission or senior’s home that truly needs your support.
One New Year’s Eve, not long ago, when I was single and my daughter was old enough to celebrate on her own, I wasn’t invited out and I didn’t invite anyone in. On my own, I grilled a steak, poured a good glass of red wine and fixed a tiny chocolate mousse for dessert. The remainder of the night, I worked on my novel, The Cook’s Temptation, that was published two years later.
To be perfectly honest, it was one of the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had. It taught me about how to handle being alone and how not to be afraid of it. It also gave me the courage to move on with my life and to value what mattered most to me, which at that moment, was writing a good book.
This New Year’s Eve, my spouse and I are hosting a party. I’ve ordered the turkey and the Beef Wellington. My New York cheesecake recipe is ready to go. I’m eager to welcome my guests. Except for family, everyone we’ve invited to the house are new friends, people I’ve met since the New Year’s Eve that I spent alone writing. What I’m learning as I age is that I have a choice about how I experience being alone and how I enjoy company and engaging new friends.
Try to turn loneliness into the impetus that makes your life meaningful and more enjoyable. My New Year’s resolution for 2016 is to continue growing as a person and to look for new opportunities— wherever they may lead. If you would, e-mail me your New Year’s resolutions at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll include them in my next blog.