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Friday, August 4, 2017

Old people die more often of loneliness than any other reason

I can’t prove it, but I know it.

I’ve thought long of late on the lack of interest in old people in our society, how deep it goes. When does it begin? What makes it so easy for children or relatives to drift off?

I began thinking of old people last summer, when I effectively stripped myself of friends and family to take care of grandchildren. Everyone had a solution, but five different solutions weren’t the fix to one problem.

Another sort of loneliness opened to me about the same time. Jean, who wintered in Florida, and summered here in town, was someone’s mother. My friend would roll her eyes and tell stories of getting mom to and from Florida; the routes they must take, the fruit stands they must frequent, and the cross road stores. My friend relished the half of the journey she could speed on the interstate, hair flying, music blaring. She covered the big chunk of her heart consumed by the mother she did not have.

My mother was our family.  We visited relatives when I was a child; the many on my father’s side of the family, the few on hers. As their husbands died, mom folded her sisters-in-law into her plans. But, not her mother. Jan and I included our mother in our day trips, but I saw to our grandmother, for as long as she lived alone.

Last summer my path crossed Jean’s, again. My friend told me, in a choked voice, she’d brought her mother from Florida and admitted her to Regina, in the locked ward. I went to see Jean. I think it was Labor Day weekend, and I had nowhere to go, in any event.

Regina emanates the grace of an old Catholic establishment. It is the peace that surrounded my Aunt Ruth, an IMH Sister. Jean and I visited for more than an hour. A sister invited me to stay to supper with Jean. Jean was the same old Jean, but who could not remember if she had been there an hour or a month, and knew her daughter had brought her. The longer I stayed the more often Jean told me she was no longer angry with her daughter.

I stopped in the lobby and texted my friend her mother was open to a visit. I know my friend visited, and I’m sure Jean made no effort to be on her best behavior.

It was easy for me to see Jean. Every other weekend Laura was with her mother, and I’d been invited nowhere, so I went to talk to Jean. My visits with Jean grew shorter; the strain of remembering who I’d said I was became apparent.

There was a three month break in visiting when I was hospitalized. Then it was Father’s Day. I took Laura, for what became a longer visit. Jean had a firm grip on the activities of childhood and asked about them. When we left, Laura took Jean’s hand and said she was pleased to have met her. I think that was the best part of Jean’s memory. 

My biggest memory, then and every time, was all the old women, lining the walls, watching for a word, reaching out to touch first.  I cried all the way home, every Sunday except Father’s Day when Laura was in the car. I cried for all the old women, and for my friend’s mother, who could not forgive her trip to Regina.

I don’t understand this behavior. My friend thinks because her mother was raised by a cold, cold stepmother, she had no relationship with family and with empathy, no experience in family bonds and exchange of civility.

What of children raised to know, who are within easy distance. How do they become so involved with friends, children, other family to forget a parent?

Jean died last month. My friend told me Jean had been moved to hospice. I got her room number and went to sit with her, at the end of her life. She was arranged uncomfortably in the bed. I found a nurse’s aide to make her more comfortable and easier breathing. Then I held her hand and thoroughly examined the peace of the room and the day outside the window. I did stare down a young nun who came to help Jean find the peace of some such thing, but who left to find something else to do.

I wondered about Jean’s spirit. We knew each other, but weren’t close acquaintances. I am her daughter’s friend, though Jean and I are of the next generation. Well, I’m not ninety, but we are of the generation of parents to our daughters. What is the disconnect, parent to child? Both sides, one side, some of each, both of each, none of each?

I was thinking of the room, the meadow, the blue sky, the shallow breathing, what bit of Jean’s spirit would linger for a time in the room, before drifting out to the blue sky? I didn’t know. When the young nun returned, a little more anxious and less discreet about wanting the side of the bed, I squeezed Jean’s hand, wished her God speed, and left.

Her daughter texted later that evening that Jean had passed. She’d finished drifting on. Jean told me once that the river was the biggest attraction she and her husband had to this valley. Perhaps she drifted south first.


  1. What a poignant story and tribute to the need of remembering the older people in our lives. I too lament that not enough people, children included, pay attention to those that are older than they. I might have fallen into the same boat had not my mother been very demanding of my time and attention. She was a very strong character. I am thankful that she did that because she is no longer here and I have all our beautiful memories. God bless you for spending time with Jean when she needed you.

  2. Sad story and a frequent one. Families aren't close any more, it's so much easier to just stick Mom in a home somewhere. I've told my husband that I want to go first, I don't want to be here on my own.

  3. Bless you for sitting with Jean in her last hours, Joanne. And for writing this beautiful piece on the chasm that exists so often between the generations.

    I wondered much the same things you did, when my father was in the nursing home. On special occasions I was always surprised by the numbers of relatives who came out of the woodwork for a couple of hours. But regular visitors, much less daily visitors, were few and far between.

  4. Such a sad story. Too many family members are isolated from each other. Maybe there was a disagreement of misunderstanding. Maybe it was because daily living caused some to forget to say I love you occasionally. Maybe distance did not enable them to see each other. I hope Jean has found her peace.

  5. Poignant and painful. And so very true.
    Thank you for sitting with Jean. And for the words and smiles you gave/give to the other women.

  6. This was so beautifully written, Joanne. It could make a stone weep because of how perfectly you told this story. I don't think you will ever be abandoned or lonely. Laura is your legacy and it is always lovely reading about your time together. She will be talking about her strong grandmother till she is a grandmother herself.

  7. Yeah, I get it all too well. My children love me, care about me, call nearly daily, but are 600 miles away. I'll see most of them in a couple days, but most days are spent in solitude; the interactions at the stores and with the neighbors are the only other things that break up the loneliness. I don't feel sorry for myself, I live where I've chosen, but 3am is a hard time to rationalize it.
    Cheers, my friend.

  8. Hari OM
    this is a phenomenon of 'western society'... though, sadly, it is starting to creep into the eastern also, as women become more liberated and take up careers there too, they having traditionally been the carers. One must be not too general though. I observed when working in the field, that those families who had spent a life-time connected, communicating and visiting on a frequent and regular basis, were more likely to continue this even when an elder had to be submitted for better physical care. Far too many families, though, are adrift long before care homes enter the equation. What was not mended before has very little hope of being mended now. Very often, too, the elder is uprooted from their familiar communities to a place their long-term friends and network cannot reach them. The family 'brings them closer', not at all thinking that the elder might actually be happier in a familiar town and in reach of their pals... Yes. It's complex and trying, but thankfully there are angels everywhere who can bring those moments of relief. You are one such. Laura, by the sounds of it, is earning her wings. YAM xx

  9. I think about getting older a lot now. Old family dynamics come into play. As an introvert, I rarely get lonely. Having said that, the worst thing I can imagine is being put into a nursing home. I will not let that happen.

  10. When we lived in Montana, one of the nursing homes had volunteers that would come in and sit with those that were in the last hours of their life so they wouldn't die alone. I'm sure other nursing homes probably do something similar. I had young kids at the time and you never knew when you would get the call to come and sit so I couldn't volunteer. I should look into it now and see if such a program exists here in Phoenix.

    I'm sorry for the loss of Jean. Sadly there are so many other Jeans out there.


  11. In any generation, it's the elderly women, perhaps men too, who are the saddest and most alone. Children move on and are busy, busy, only dropping in occasionally, perhaps Christmas and birthdays. I wonder sometimes about my future and hope I can remain self sufficient for many years yet.

  12. The grand children have stopped getting in touch with my mother who has been an amazing granny. It breaks my heart. I can tell my two to ring her but my nieces get cross with me if I remind them. They tell me that they are adults & don't need auntie Penny telling them to get in touch with granny... but they don't.

  13. I think that your title is sort of true, but I would say that the loneliness is often caused by a feeling of being no use to anyone anymore. Families which traditionally venerate parents and grand parents stick together. Old people remain useful.

  14. A sad story Joanne. Rachel has a point of course but I have only one son and I wouldn't be without his cheerfulness and good humour. He lives near to me. Ny grandchildren e mail and visit (except my grandson in China of course)and I treasure tham all. Life is too short for family fall outs.

  15. You're writing about loneliness in old age, and you do it so well that I can feel the loneliness. I'm past 70 and thinking about such things. So far a young grandchild, seen frequently, keeps loneliness away. Mostly, my yearning is for time alone. It's hard to imagine that I will ever get tired of solitude -- but I probably will. We truly understand only when we experience.

  16. I shed a few tears reading this post, Joanne, for Jean and the other woman waiting for a hand or a kind work. I hope Jean is at peace now.

    Here, I am part of a group reaching out to people living in social isolation, which is so detrimental to one's health. So far we have a Person to Person phone project with periodic socials. We hope to expand the program over time. It is a start.

  17. I think about this myself. as do we all as we get up in years I suppose. I worry about my son who is childless and isolated even now. I'm 67, still young these days and my sister turned 70. my grandmother lived in solitude in her own little apartment attached to our house when I was growing up until she died when I was 18. my mother never ever visited her even though there was at most 30' between our back door and hers. and after a while she quit coming over to our house. they did not get along. my mother and I did not get along either. that's some of it I suppose. when a relationship is testy and unpleasant it's easy to put off the visit. I don't mind solitude, I've basically been a loner all my life, have few friends. my neighbor died suddenly at 68 and we went to the funeral and the church was packed. It made me think about my own and the handful of people that might show up. so I try to stay as healthy and active as I can. I try and keep close to my children and grandchildren who still come visit. I do think the saddest end is to become one of the ghosts in a nursing home. perhaps I will take a page from your book Joanne and see if there is a place in this small town where I can go and visit strangers.

  18. I wish I knew the answers to your questions. Is aging so frightening that the young turn their back on us because they are afraid of death and dying? What cowardice is that? But was I any different? There is so much to think about after reading this post.

  19. What a beautiful story. It evoked so many of my own memories and I write with water in my eyes! You are such a blessing Joanne!

  20. Dear Joanne, thank you for sharing this story with us. It is so poignant and I find myself relating to it now that I've aged and moved away from where I'd lived for 38 years and made a multitude of caring friends. Now I am closer to family, but they are all younger and caught up in the ups and downs of their children and grandchildren. I've come to accept that and to accept my own decision never to marry or have children.

    I so hope your friend Jean is at peace with her mother's death. If she isn't, I feel sure that your love and wisdom will help on the journey to peace and to the acceptance of what she had to do when she took her mother to Regina. Peace.

  21. Oh, Joanne. Your kindness to Jean will always be remembered. Thanks for this post. So beautifully written, so meaningful.

  22. Sad that we no longer value the old but will it ever change we have our time and if we live past it no one seeks our knowledge any more.
    You are a kind and rare person.

  23. There's a part of me that would love the children to live just round the corner but , having brought them up to go out and explore , I can't complain that they've done just that .
    Thank heaven for the 'phone !