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Healthy Aging: Act now to fight the loneliness disease

Let’s reflect on something that may not be easy to consider.

Did you know that loneliness and social isolation are now believed to be as dangerous to personal health and well-being as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? Did you know that being lonely puts you at greater risk of death than being obese?

A recent article posted on www.nextavenue.org referenced a survey of 1,000 older adults and who were asked if they knew at least one person who was lonely and “82 percent of the respondents said they did.” That fact alone is troubling. But 58 percent of that same group indicated they would be “reluctant to admit” if they themselves felt lonely or isolated.

It’s complicated — this business of social isolation. Children, grandchildren and friends from the past often live at a distance and have their own active, self-absorbed lives. As we age-in-place, our distant family and friends may call less often and rarely send letters. I do not have a survey to reference; I speak from experience.

In a text message some years ago, I queried my 20-something granddaughter about sending an occasional letter or greeting card to an elderly relative who was living alone and reported being “just a little depressed.” My granddaughter responded with, “I don’t have any stamps.”

I resisted my desire to continue the texted exchange in a way that would come across as too directive and assuredly not end well. I also resisted a compulsion to send this otherwise-beloved granddaughter a package of pre-stamped and already-addressed greeting cards. When my mother-in-law, her great grandmother, died, months later, I wished I’d given into my compulsion. I also wished I had done more of my own loving outreach.

The survey identified above explored social isolation and its impact was done for the SCAN Health Plan, “a national non-profit organization focused on keeping senior healthy and independent.” In the summary, they offer practical suggestions about what to say to socially isolated, and often sad, older adults.

But it’s what was suggested not to say that really caught my attention. For example, do not say, “Let me know how I can help .” It’s such a well-intended phrase but it may only serve to absolve the would-be helper from being required to act.

My godmother-aunt who died alone in her home at the age of 92 would tell me that when her neighbors said, “Let me know what I can do to help,” she would think, “They should already know I need a ride to church. They should already know I need groceries.”

She would tell me that during our long-distance phone conversations—but she would never tell her neighbors. So, I did.

And that’s where we come to the let’s-take-action portion of this column. Consider reaching out to a lonely and isolated elder. Especially today — before you forget. I am sure you know someone. Send them a tender greeting card, bring them flowers or a “fattening and thoughtful” dessert, as one appreciative elder put it. Listen to these folks “let the sad out,” if that is what they need.

Do that today — and then do it again. And yet again. I will, too.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.