Ina Albert, Author
It’s late on a Wednesday night, and Franklin Crawford, 52, is pushing a shopping cart around a 24-hour grocery store in Ithaca, New York. He’s found the bananas and cat food he needs, but as he roams the aisles he adds ice cream and other nonessentials to his basket. “This is the meeting place, the agora,” he explains. “It’s the abundance, the people, the bright light. It makes me feel good.”
Crawford visits a store like this almost every day. This one is his favorite because the café stays open until 10 p.m. and the security guard lets him hang out if he buys something. Paying for stuff is not the problem. Crawford is employed. He is also fit, well dressed, and well read. Other good-looking, well-dressed people are also here alone, slowly pushing carts of their own. Most of them don’t seem to be in a hurry, either, but Crawford says he usually doesn’t make eye contact or start conversations. “I don’t think we really want that from each other,” he says. “Sometimes I think maybe we despise each other, because we’re all here instead of home with someone else.”
Today more than 44 million adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.
Crawford is lonely — but he’s not alone. A groundbreaking AARP The Magazine survey reveals that millions of older Americans suffer from chronic loneliness, and their ranks are swelling: Of the 3,012 people ages 45 and up who participated in our study, 35 percent are chronically lonely (as rated on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a standard measurement tool), compared with 20 percent in a similar survey a decade ago. Loneliness was equally prevalent regardless of race, gender, or education levels. Unexpectedly, though, age does make a difference: Those who said they are suffering most are not the oldest among us but rather adults in their 40s and 50s.
Chronic loneliness, experts tell us, is an ever-present, self-perpetuating condition that pushes people away from the relationships that sustain us and make us happy. But the chronically lonely are not merely unhappy — they are in danger. “Loneliness has surprisingly broad and profound health effects,” says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and a leading authority on the topic. There is mounting evidence that loneliness significantly increases the chances of diabetes, sleep disorders, and other potentially life-threatening problems. Research has also shown a greater risk of high blood pressure among lonely people, as well as higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, weakened immune systems, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Authors are often lonely. Spending time in our heads doesn’t permit the open expression of our ideas and critiques of our premises. What better reason to join a group, bring your secret characters to life through someone else’s eyes, express them in a different way and recheck your premises.
I think it is in part due to how one is “wired.” For myself, I have never equated being alone with loneliness. However, I’ve noticed that as I age and loose physical strength and agility, there has been an uptick in the anxiety level about what if sometime happens (an accident or sudden health emergency) while I am alone. Things I used to do without a second thought, like climbing a ladder or using certain power tools, I now put off until someone else is around. Is this heightened sense of caution typical in aging?
Another question that arises is whether people in their forties and fifties aren’t experiencing, if not midlife crises, a lot of unsettling change. There is the actual or impending threat of the empty nest syndrome, divorce or broken relationships, those first intimations of mortality. Such things invite introspection and whether we like it or not, the need to be alone to figure out who we’re going to be for the second half of life. It’s true that writing is a solitary pursuit, but I’ve never felt lonely doing it. I’ve got all those characters to keep me company. Karen
Deb, I think a heightened sense of caution is sensible unless it makes us afraid to do anything. It’s good to arrange for someone to hold the ladder, etc. Karen
True. But it is aggravating at times. Just like having to put on my glasses NOW to read the small print. 😉