Smile, be brave, just do it

The bad news is we’re in the midst of an epidemic (and we’re not talking about COVID-19). The good news is, we can do something about it. Experts say the state of loneliness, a growing public health concern in the United States impacting about 20 million older adults, is fixable. And New York’s new ambassador of loneliness most certainly agrees.  

Celebrity “sexpert” Dr. Ruth Westheimer, most widely recognized as the sassy therapist, professor, author, lecturer, radio and TV personality, has pivoted to her new role with her usual spirit, commitment and straightforward attitude, positive that loneliness in older adults can be cured.  

Dr. Ruth Westheimer
“Loneliness is nothing new. The good news is that you can change that.” — Dr. Ruth Westheimer (Image by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“We are living longer and that means we often find ourselves outliving friends and family members we did have connections with,” says the 95-year-old New Yorker, who was appointed to her new role last November. “A longer life isn’t necessarily a healthy life,” she adds.

“There are many seniors who are stuck in their homes and don’t get to see anyone for long stretches,” she continues. “And these days most young couples both work so they have less time to spend with an elderly parent. But it still doesn’t mean you have to be alone.”

Westheimer, who knows firsthand about loneliness as she recalls her isolated teen years as a Holocaust orphan, adds that the COVID-19 pandemic isolated people even more, prompting the concerning spike in loneliness among older adults. 

“Loneliness is nothing new,” she explains. “The good news is that you can change that.”

Multiple studies in recent years attest to the nation’s growing senior population, thanks to better medical care and technology and the aging baby boom generation. Loneliness and isolation as we age can contribute widely to both physical and emotional deterioration.  

“We are not built to be alone, we are human beings,” says Emily Allen, senior vice president for the AARP Foundation. “We are social creatures and as we age, our lives change, our circumstances change.”

Older people tend to reduce their social interaction as they age because they think they can’t do things because of age-related limitations. “That is counterproductive,” she says.

Allen adds that one of the first steps to beating loneliness as we get older is to plan. “You make a financial plan for your retirement,” she says. ”You should be making a social plan as well.”  

She recommends thinking about what you want to do when life circumstances eventually change. “What will your lifestyle choice be? What kinds of hobbies do you want to try? Who will be those friends in your life? Do it before you find yourself alone,” she says.

Mary Moller, executive director of the Albany Guardian Society, puts it very succinctly: “Be brave,” she says.  

Mature woman calling an uber - ways to overcome loneliness
Photo by anandaBGD from Getty Images Signature

“You don’t have to be alone. There are so many activities and such accessibility to so many programs,” says Allen, whose agency travels around New York providing computer classes, art classes, exercise classes and more at libraries, senior housing complexes and senior centers.

“You have to make connections, accept help. If you can’t drive, learn how to use senior transportation, ask for a ride, learn to adapt,” she continues, noting that many programs are offered through Zoom, a connection that allows seniors to stay in their own homes and still have access to programs and other people. “Everyone should have a joy-filled life.”

Westheimer explains she lobbied for her new post because she saw a need and knew she could fill the bill when it came to addressing the loneliness epidemic and helping New Yorkers feel less lonely. 

“Everybody is lonely once in a while, it’s part of the human condition,” says Westheimer. “If there is a silver lining to feeling that way, it is that by accepting your own bouts of loneliness you can use them as an impetus to reach out to others who may be lonely and help them.”

When Westheimer reached out to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul about the proposal, the governor replied with a resounding “yes.” 

That isn’t the only step the state is taking when it comes to addressing the issue. Hochul has also initiated a State Master Plan for Aging in tandem with the State Department of Health and the State Office for the Aging to help New York’s adults lead fulfilling lives as they age. 

“One shouldn’t vegetate but be as active as possible,” Westheimer says, emphasizing there are many agencies, transportation services, online programs and simple lifestyle changes that can connect us with others. “That improves your morale and in the end makes you feel less lonely.”

Westheimer offers simple tips to seniors who long for more social interaction. “The first step is to admit that you are lonely and commit yourself to doing something about it,” she says. “Don’t say to yourself, ‘Well, I’m old, it’s expected that I’ll be lonely.’ It’s not.” 

She also encourages seniors to reach out to family and friends and plan in-person get-togethers. 

“It’s not enough to talk on the phone,” she says. “Make concrete plans to see each other.” 

And finally, the famed therapist adds a really easy tip she suggests everyone should be doing, no matter their age.

“Try to smile as much as possible,” she recommends. “If you are grocery shopping with a frown on your face, no one is going to want to talk to you. So smile.”

Older couple picking up new hobby - learning to putt
Photo by Joshua Resnick, via Canva

Some Suggestions

Experts agree that while isolation and loneliness in Americans over 60 years old is a problem across the United States, there are steps that isolated older people and their families can take to improve social connectedness and well-being. 

Here are some suggestions:

For Seniors:

• Find an activity that you enjoy, restart an old hobby or take a class to learn something new. You will likely meet others with similar interests.

• Schedule time each day to stay in touch with family, friends and neighbors in person, by email, social media, phone or text. Sending letters or cards is another good way to keep up friendships.

• Use technology such as video chat, FaceTime and Zoom to stay connected with friends and relatives and to take advantage of online classes and discussions. 

• If you’re not tech-savvy, sign up for an online or in-person class at your local public library or community center to help you learn how to use email and social media.

• If it is feasible, consider adopting a pet. 

• Join a group at your local senior center, church, library or community center. Research the services and classes being offered. 

• Take a walk with friends or even by yourself around your neighborhood, if possible. It’s good for your physical health and another way to socialize. 

• Volunteer at a nonprofit, school, hospital or community organization. You’d be surprised at how much you can do to help. 

For Concerned Friends or Family:

• Be aware of relatives or friends who are spending too much time alone or showing signs of social deprivation. Listen to them and try to make time for phone calls and visits. 

• Encourage and help older adults take advantage of community programs for seniors, and help them find proper transportation if they can’t drive. Be an advocate for setting up a plan that provides some social interaction.

• Encourage them to be open to trying new activities and visiting new places. Often all someone needs is a little push to try new things and meet new people. 

Some Helpful Links

New York Office for the Aging

National Institute on Aging

Albany Guardian Society

American Association of Retired Persons

AARP Connect2Affect

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