. . .Old trees just grow stronger
. . .Old rivers grow wilder every day,
Old people just grow lonesome. . ..
So goes the chorus of Hello In There, written by the late John Prine. Prine was a master storyteller. His songs contain characters and observations of the human condition, part ballad and part novel. More than any other contemporary songwriter, he often told stories from the perspective of, and with great affection for, older adults. Hello In There tells the story of John and Loretta, a couple in later life, and the impact of a lonely existence on those who feel their best days are behind them.
According to a report by the Administration on Community Living, nearly 14 million older adults live alone, including nearly half of women ages 75 and older. Living by oneself increases the risk of loneliness or social isolation, especially for those who find themselves “unexpectedly alone” due to “death of a partner, family separation, retirement, loss of mobility or lack of transportation.” Loneliness can take a toll on physical and mental health, contributing to greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers, infections or dementia.
As an organization that addresses the needs of older adults, and one that is committed to continuous quality improvement, we regularly survey our clients and program participants. Results from our Client Experience Surveys help us measure the effectiveness of our programs and gain greater understanding of the people we serve. One of the questions we ask is whether or not people feel lonely.
As you might expect, clients who are homebound, those who lack access to transportation and those living with serious mental illness or cognitive impairment were more likely to express loneliness. It is one of the reasons we place so much emphasis on social connections and outreach in our work at Benjamin Rose.
For example, think for a moment about the best meal you ever ate.
I’m willing to bet it was not a meal you ate alone. Maybe it was fried chicken at your grandma’s house. Or a favorite restaurant on date night. Or the steak dinner to celebrate a big promotion. Food is a big part of life. More than calories. It is social connection, tradition and identity. We call some of it “comfort food” for a reason. Some of the clients we serve tell us that there are days when the only person they speak to is the driver who delivers their meal. Or that the only meal they don’t eat alone is lunch at one of our Rose Centers. Beyond the meals, there are activities, classes, shopping trips and entertainment that help connect people and build relationships.
Our Senior Companion volunteers are another resource to address social isolation. Trained volunteers are matched with other older adults to share conversation, run errands and participate in activities. Other volunteers provide telephone reassurance, deliver meals or lead group activities. It turns out that volunteering and serving others are great ways to reduce one’s own sense of loneliness. A sense of purpose can be a great antidote to social isolation.
Social connections are an important part of other programs, too. Computer literacy classes, financial education or group counseling sessions are more than just their course content. They also provide a forum for people to gather together. The folks who participate in our programs and services report that they feel better physically, feel better mentally, and are less lonely.
May is Older American Month and provides an opportunity to focus not only on the needs of older adults, but also on their contributions to society. Older people are not only recipients of our services, but they are often the providers of those services as well, as members of our paid and volunteer staff. You, too, can be part of fulfilling our mission to support caregivers and empower all people to age well, as a donor or a volunteer.
And even if you don’t have the time to deliver meals or lead a class, you can still have a positive impact on the lives of older adults. One of the ways you can help reduce social isolation is simply saying, “Hello in there.”
So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello"
Listen to Hello In There on YouTube.