Lonely? Find ways to fight it

One day, shortly after her husband’s death, 80-year-old May McCormack found herself on a bus at the end of the line.

“Are you bored, ma’am?” the driver asked when she didn’t get off.

“I was very depressed,” she recalls. “I had a mental breakdown and was in hospital a couple of times. I felt lost without my husband.”

Being alone often comes with the territory of growing older. Many of the life events that accompany aging-retirement, divorce, widowhood, children leaving home or a move from the old homestead-can make you feel isolated, cut off from family and friends and familiar surroundings.

Loneliness affects both men and women and, if not addressed, can lead to depression, alcoholism, cardiovascular disease or, in extreme cases, suicide.

Loneliness affects the sexes differently
The 1996 census showed that about one million seniors live alone (that figure is expected to increase when this year’s census is complete).

Women, because they live longer, are more likely than men to be alone, and married women have a 60 per cent chance of being a widow for at least 10 years.

While men are less likely to be widower(even past the age of 75, 58 per cent of men are still with their partners compared to only 20 per cent of women), loneliness seems to affect them more.

A University of California study reveals men are 20 per cent more likely than women to die within a year of their spouse’s death. Because men have depended upon their wives to be their social connection most of their lives, the loss of a spouse can mean the loss of those vital emotional support networks.

“I think it’s much harder for men on their own than women,” claims Ben Swankey, 88, from Burnaby, B.C., whose wife died 14 years ago. “Women are much more sociable.”

Swankey’s advice for men on their own: “Go where the women are and talk to them. Men are lonesome for the fairer sex. Another piece of advice I give men: dress up! Women always try to look their best-so should men.”

Next page: Planning for a social life

Planning for a social life
Being alone doesn’t have to mean being lonely. And the decisions we make today can help us avoid that sense of isolation 10 to 20 years from now, says Margaret Penning, an associate professor at the University of Victoria’s Centre on Aging. 

“We spend a lot of time planning the financial details of retirement. We should put just as much effort into planning the social side.”

Elsie Petch, a nurse and community health worker at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, thinks it’s never too soon to start building the kind of buddy system that will pay off when we need support later.

The buddy system is important to the eight women and one man enjoying their breakfast together in the lounge of the Hope Seniors Centre in East End Toronto.  All of them have known what it is to feel lonely and isolated.

“I never expected my husband to go before me,” May McCormack says quietly. “I was completely alone. I didn’t have many friends. My husband didn’t believe in having friends-it was just family.”

Giving up the family home
Giving up the family home may also contribute to the trauma.

“It was the hardest thing in my life after living in the same house for 54 years,” says Stella Roberts, 87, another Hope resident. “My legs are not too good, and I was finding it hard getting upstairs.”

Leaving was especially hard, she says, because she and some of her neighbours had arrived as young married women. When moving day came, “I did more crying than you can imagine,” says Roberts.

Phil Langlois, 78, the only man at the table at Hope Seniors Centre, has known loneliness.

“My wife died when I was 62. I stayed in our home, but I would wake up in the middle of the night and see her walking toward the bed. I had to move.”

His solution was to keep busy. He revived a boyhood interest in stamp collecting, and he now teaches a class in it two days a week at a public school.

“It’s opened up whole new vistas to me,” he says. Langlois also rides his scooter or public transit to read to a man in his nineties who has a sight impairment and plays cribbage with another man who has Alzheimer’s.

Next page: Poverty can add to isolation

Poverty can add to isolation
For women, a lack of money is often another factor in their isolation. Marion Lynn, a Toronto research consultant who conducted a study of rural and urban women for the Older Women’s Network, says older women are the poorest group in Canada.

In this generation, she says, many women worked in the home and don’t have Canada Pension Plan benefits or their own RSPs. When their husbands die, these women slip into poverty often in their fifties and sixties. Women, on average, receive only 59 per cent of the CPP benefits that men collect.

But women living in poverty are largely an invisible problem.

“Society doesn’t see these women because they are isolated,” says Edith Johnson, 81, former secretary of the National Pensioners and Senior Citizens Federation and recipient of the Order of Canada for her efforts to get women and retirees involved in local unions.

“I think it happens because the rest of the world is so busy. Your children live in other parts of Canada. It’s not like the old days when the vegetable man and the milkman or even the postman came around. No one comes around any more. We’ve reached the point where everyone is separated from one another.”

Older divorced women cope better being alone than widows, probably because they’ve learned to become self-reliant and have built a support network for themselves.

“They have a different sort of strength,” explains Sharon Kirshenblat, an administrator at the East Toronto Seniors Centre.

Traditional supports are gone
Adding to the sense of isolation is the fact that many traditional support systems and social opportunities have disappeared. Of the half dozen women at the East Toronto Seniors’ Centre, only two belong to a church.

“I used to go to church,” says Jo Carter, 85. “But then I started going to the Legion on Saturday night, and that made me feel guilty going to church the next morning.”

The fear of meeting new people can also play a part. If a new person comes to a pancake brunch at the centre, for instance, Kirshenblat makes sure they meet people and feel welcome, “or they may never come again.”

Studies show people living on their own, without a close friend or family member nearby, are twice as likely to eat poorly and fall ill.

Next page: Families don’t have time

Families don’t have time
We tend to think the situation is different for extended immigrant families where grandma is at home caring for her grandchildren. But don’t count on it.

“I hate to say this,” says Maha Bustami, a settlement counsellor at the Arab Community Centre in Toronto, “but increasingly we see elderly people left alone. Their children don’t have time to spend with them. There’s no room for them in the home.”

In many cases, when grandma can no longer look after the children, or isn’t needed for that purpose, she is consigned to senior housing or a nursing home, where, often isolated by language and culture, she is in every sense alone. For the 200,000-strong Arab community in Toronto, as well as for other immigrant groups across the country, “this situation is going to get worse and worse,” predicts Bustami.

The small-town difference
It’s different in rural Canada where, community ties tend to be strong.

“When a woman loses her spouse,” says Helen Rigby, 69, a widow and past provincial Women’s Institute president in Manitoba, “other single women pick her up. Groups of women have dinner together certain nights of the week.”

In small towns, she says, the coffee shop is an important meeting place for women alone.

Dorothy Latimer, a 70-year-old widow living on her farm near Boissevain, Man., is an example of these active countrywomen. 

“I am so busy,” says Dorothy, whose husband died at 55. “I have a granddaughter who is in basketball and two grandsons who are in hockey, and I go to their games. That’s a priority.”

Her neighbor Elaine Froese drops in, her son and daughter-in-law live across the road, and there’s a friend three kilometres away with whom she is in daily phone contact.

“If you lived in the city where you don’t know your neighbors, I could see how you could be very isolated,” says Latimer.

Rural living isolating
However, rural living can have its disadvantages. In her study of older women, Marion Lynn discovered many who retire to the cottage or to small communities end up feeling stranded.

“This is the man’s dream-fishing , hunting, chopping wood,” she says. “But then he gets ill or dies.” The wife might end up living alone on a back road, unable to afford to move back to town or to the city.

Colleen McRae, of the Older Women’s Network in Peterborough, Ont., points to another worry for women who live alone at the lake-crime.

“The neighbors only come up on the weekend. People come by in boats, looking for things to steal. It can be scary.”

Olive Kirk and her husband, Doug, both 75, lived in their lakeside home near Peterborough for 18 years before deciding to put it on the market and move to a smaller house in town.

“They were wonderful years, but we both realized it was time to make a change. We’re both fit, but we have some health problems.”

Two women Olive knew in her area had lost their husbands and had chosen to remain in family homes that were too big for them.

“They’ve become immobilized with grief and depression. They’re apprehensive and afraid to move.”

Next page: Anticipate change

Anticipate change
Older people, she says, must anticipate change. “Consider your housing, your eyesight, your mobility and recognize that you may not always be able to drive.”

“I’m hearing more and more about mutual support groups. I think you will see this as a groundswell. People in their fifties and sixties see what’s happening to their parents and to the home care system,” says Petch. 

In the past, we relied on our families. Today, she says, a mutual support group of people of varying ages might spring out of a common interest in birdwatching or line dancing, or come about as a result of neighbours recognizing their mutual dependency. It can start with a little thing — like watering a friend’s plants while she’s away-and result, for instance, in her being there to help you when you come home from an operation.

Thinking it through
Ben Swankey, author and commentator on aging issues, says,  “If you’re contemplating moving, think of the friends of a lifetime that you’re leaving behind. Are you prepared to make the effort to make new friends? And if after you’ve moved as a couple, one of you dies, what happens to the other?”

Before giving up the house and the old neighbourhood, consider renting out a room or part of your home to a younger person to provide income as well as human contact.

“Women are wonderful,” Marion Lynn says. “They work for the United Way, make things for all the bake sales, and are always helping others. And I am not suggesting they should stop doing that. But they have to think of looking after themselves instead of just looking after everyone else.”

Men also need to change their way of thinking. They may be a whiz at changing the car oil or reeling in a bass, but they have to move beyond the strong, silent male stereotype to help shake that empty feeling of loneliness.