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loneliness and aging - a storytelling perspective

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash.

I become extremely frustrated when I read posts in mastermind groups:

“I feel so lonely.” Or, “I don’t have anyone to share experiences.”

Or, “I’ve just moved and I have trouble making friends.” Or, “My grown children never call me. I’m thinking of moving to be closer to them.”

Well-meaning readers send advice tips like:

“Look for other people like yourself.”
“Join a group where you’ll be likely to make friends.”
“Get involved in a church or a volunteer work opportunity.”

These well-meaning tips seem to miss the point. Getting over loneliness and making friends – especially when you’ve just moved to a new community – requires a mindset shift.

Many of us were taught an unrealistic story: “I need to have friends. Something’s wrong with me if I don’t.”

Or conversely, “I deserve to have friends. My loved ones ought to be more attentive.”

I’ve moved a lot, in geography as well as careers. When you make changes, you often lose a lot of your connections. You need to make new ones. I’ve learned the best way to do this is to embrace the maxim “Friends are like bank loans. They come easily when you don’t need them.”

Here are 3 ways to address this challenge.

(1) Reframe your “being alone” to an “embrace your solitude” story.

A lot of people are brought up to believe that “social” is normal and solitude is weird. In a classic book, written a long time ago, British psychiatrist Anthony Story challenged this notion. Freud talked about love and work, he said. Some people lean more toward one than the other.

People who enjoy their own company are never lonely. For one thing, they’re busy with their own activities and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

But the bigger point is, when you’re busy and happy you’re more attractive. People seek you out.

Being seen as “needy” won’t bring supportive, caring people into your life. I’ve met people who complained their kids never called them…until they got so busy they barely had time to answer the phone. Now they were interesting people and it was a privilege to be around them.

(2) Choose social activities for you – not your imaginary future friends.

Many people who join churches and “singles” groups in hopes of finding friends. Or they hear that certain groups are “good places to meet people.”

Sometimes they’re successful. Usually, they end up bored and lonelier than ever.

They’re sending out “needy” signals. And if they don’t make friends, the time seems wasted.

The key is to do things you’ll enjoy whether or not you make new friends. I know people who love sports so much they play in adult leagues. I’ve made connections myself through ceramics classes and improv classes.

Hang out a while and you may or not make friends. But you’ll have a good time and become a happier person…which means you’re more likely to build meaningful social relationships.

(3) Sometimes you’ve set your story in the wrong place.

Let’s get real. Some cities are simply cliquish and cold to newcomers. For instance, some places have a strong norm of “family only:” they never invite other people’s kids to play, let alone other people. If you’re a single person or a newcomer, you will be left out.

That’s also true of workplaces. In some settings, everybody eats lunch alone. In others you’ll find just the opposite: coworkers ask all sorts of personal questions and expect you to belong to their office family.

There’s not much you can do to change the local culture.

Eventually, you might find like-minded people and develop relationships. But you’ll always feel like an outsider as long as you live there.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. I’ve had moves from cities where I was never part of a social network, to places where they thought I was “cool.” I’m the same person.

If you can’t move because you’re locked into a job, you’ll have to find a way to enjoy your solitude until you get to leave. I once met someone who had to spend a year in a remote location in order to advance his career. He hired a coach and made calls weekly. If he hadn’t, he says, he’d have gone crazy or lost his career.

If you have the choice, don’t be put off by sneering comments like, “If you can’t be happy here, you won’t be happy anywhere.”

The “geographical cure” doesn’t work for some problems, but it often works for making friends. Hold firm and find ways to enjoy life on your own terms. It’ll get better when you’re gone.

Don’t believe the statistics.

You’ll find many newspaper stories about the perils of loneliness. When you read the fine print, they’re often exaggerated.

For example, you’ll see many headlines suggesting that “older” people are doomed to a life of loneliness.

A study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine suggests that one-quarter of people over sixty-five experience social isolation. In other words, 75% of people over 65 do not experience social isolation.

A blog post on Next Avenue reports a similar statistic: from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College: “92 percent of people ages 55 to 64 — and 76 percent of respondents 65 or older — were involved
with paid work, volunteering, caregiving or educational activities.”

Someone’s trying to spin a story here. We need to be vigilant.

The topic for this article was inspired by my book, Making The Big Move, available as a Kindle book on Amazon and free for Kindle Unlimited.