I once met a 70-year old man recovering from a coronary artery bypass surgery. He talked to me, somewhat cantankerously, about how he was going to get an animal to keep him company. I asked him what kind, and he said, “An animal! It doesn’t matter!”
But then he talked about his old cat Buckwheat, a cat who he spent all his time with when he lived in Virginia, and how he taught Buckwheat to do tricks like walk across a rope to retrieve a feather. He then said, “It’s important to have family and friends whom you can share life with. What’s the point of going to a movie or a play by yourself if you can’t talk about it with anyone afterward? You have to keep all your thoughts up here,” and pointed at his head.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam showed that civic engagement in America was dying, and along with that, social isolation and depression were on the rise among the the elderly. Putnam’s follow up study of the post-9/11 generation showed that as of 2004, a quarter of study participants reported that they lacked a confidant with whom to discuss important personal matters, and nearly half of all respondents reported being only one confidant away from social isolation. Our society is not getting any better at improving connections between individuals.
I have met quite a few individuals like the Buckwheat man, mostly at the VA hospital I work at. These are people who have been through experiences we could never imagine: being ambushed by freedom fighters in the dead of night, working in fields wilting from Agent Orange, watching their friends get stabbed in front of them, having to fire on another human being. Now, their buddies are gone and they have only a visiting nurse or health aide to talk to. I’ve made it a priority to do afternoon social rounds and spend 10 minutes with each vet, asking them about where they’re from and what they do for fun. One of my patients spent 30 minutes (admittedly I was getting a little impatient then) telling me about his work as a pattern maker, a skilled form of woodworking that made his eyes light up. I swear that after that visit, he reported less pain than he previously had.
This study from the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry discusses how loneliness has been linked not only to worsening depression and cognition, but also hypertension, insomnia, and weakened immune response. I believe that by engaging seniors in community celebrations and parades, oral history projects, civic projects, and social gatherings, we could actually make people healthier.