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Image by Nico Iseli on Unsplash.

[Note: This is directly excerpted from my book, When I Get Old...”]

The Wall Street Journal ran an article on December 11, 2018: The Loneliest Generation by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg. Apparently 8.3% of the Baby Boomers and 7.2% of the Silent Generation “reported they often felt lonely.” In comparison, 5.6% of Gen Xers and 2.1% of millennials reported they often felt lonely.

These statistics might seem to tell a sad story for older people, but there’s only a 1.6% difference between Gen X and the Silent Generation, and only a 2.7% difference between Gen X and the Boomers.

Millennials, as of the study date of 2014, ranged in age from 18 to 33.

At that age, they’re perfectly placed to be around potential friends. Some were in college or even high school. Some were serving in the military.  Some will be in graduate school or in early career stages. Some still live at home. They’ll be around lots of people.Some still retain friends from college.

But the question I’d ask is, what’s the stigma of admitting you’re lonely?

Many older people have accepted the belief, “It’s hard to make friends when you’re older.” They may report more loneliness than other generations simply because they feel comfortable admitting they’re lonely. They may have been taught to describe their feelings as loneliness.

Examples from the WSJ article suggest that loneliness also comes from physical illness, which limits physical mobility, as well as lack of money. There’s no discussion of the loss of economic and career mobility, which might be even more significant.

Most reader comments were variations of, “People who complain that they are lonely need to find themselves a hobby, join a church, or volunteer their time for a good cause.”

That’s the holy trinity of recommendations for older people and it’s consistent with the Miss Congeniality role assigned to them.

In his otherwise excellent book, Modern Death, Haider Warraich writes about a woman who “came in [to the hospital] by herself.” She didn’t have a health care proxy and didn’t have anyone who would know her preferences.

Warraich then points out that by 2030, this woman’s situation won’t be unusual. By then 2 million Americans will have outlived all their family and friends.

So far so good. But then Darraich goes on to assume this woman is lonely.

He writes: “The next day, in a lovely gesture, my attending physician brought a bouquet of fall flowers and a copy of the New York Times for my lonesome patient. Perhaps more than the antibiotics we were giving her, it was that gesture which was the most significant intervention that we made for her.” [Emphasis added.]

Why does he assume this woman is lonesome? Maybe she’s got lots of friends who were just too busy to come to the hospital with her. They probably couldn’t get time off from work.

The woman’s reaction might not be about loneliness at all. The idea of any medical person doing something nice would blow me away — not because I’d be relieved of loneliness, but because a medical person showed respect for my dignity and intelligence. Usually, they treat me like a sack of potatoes (“We’re not ready for you: wait over there.”) or a five-year-old (“sit up nice and tall for me.”).

Bottom Line: Some older people may be lonely, but there’s less difference compared to younger generations than we might suspect. Something that seems like loneliness might be due to other causes.. Treating loneliness as a psychological problem to be resolved with individual therapy seems to miss the point. Often isolation is caused by economic circumstances and ageism, not due to any character traits of the person.