The rising risks of loneliness for the elderly

The people who built their neighborhood churches, who volunteered in those parishes and raised families, are increasingly living alone and cut off from their communities as they enter their golden years.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May last year created the world’s first “Minister for Loneliness,” explaining that for far too many people, “loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” China, a country where respect for elders was once deeply interwoven into the culture, even passed a law in recent years requiring adult children to visit their parents.

“It’s odd. We all want to live into old age, but we don’t want the old people around,” said Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at the Center for Family and Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

“It begs the question,” Yoshihara told Our Sunday Visitor, “Who’s going to take care of us?”

Swept aside

Various demographic and cultural factors account for why the elderly, from the United States to Japan, are more likely today to feel lonely and isolated, a trend that public health officials in several countries are finding increases the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and earlier death.

“There’s a growing awareness of the importance of socialization and connection with other people to overall health,” said Kathy McKeon, the supervisor for Catholic Social Services of Rhode Island.

McKeon told OSV that elderly housing, Social Security and a host of other programs have done “a wonderful job” of reducing poverty among the elderly. Those same programs have made it easier for the elderly to live alone, but the sad fact is that the elderly are getting pushed aside in a modern world that values youth, health and productivity at the expense of the old, sick and vulnerable.

“In the U.S., we have a culture of youth, in a lot of ways a materialistic culture, and we value people in terms of how much they have and what they do,” McKeon said. “When you’re 85, how much you have and what you do is not necessarily something that is in the forefront.”

In 2016, The New York Times reported that roughly 1 in 3 people over 65 in Britain and the United States lived alone. The paper reported that studies in both countries revealed the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60, ranging from 10 percent to 46 percent.

Greg Schleppenbach, associate director for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV that radical individualism and materialistic consumerism are warping people’s view of the elderly and vulnerable as burdens to bear rather than as “opportunities for love.”

“Anything, or anyone, that gets in the way of this disjointed freedom is considered a burden, an obstacle, and that includes the elderly who need our help at a very vulnerable stage of life,” Schleppenbach said.

Papal guidance

Schleppenbach also noted that Pope St. John Paul II warned about the roots of the “culture of death,” notably in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). Schleppenbach further pointed out that Pope Francis in recent years has been warning of new ideologies that weaken social bonds and fuel the “throwaway mentality” that leads people and societies to have contempt toward and to abandon the weak.

“As communitarian beings, it’s precisely in giving of ourselves to others that we find our true meaning in life,” Schleppenbach said. “That’s part of our faith. If others didn’t need us, if others didn’t need us to give of ourselves in sacrifice to the need of others, it would be a very cold and very unpleasant culture.”

Speaking during a general audience in March 2015, Pope Francis called neglect of the elderly a mortal sin.

“The elderly are not aliens. We are them — in a short or in a long while we are inevitably them, even though we choose not to think about it,” said Pope Francis, who recounted visiting an elderly woman who told him that she had not seen her family since the previous Christmas eight months prior.

A society where the elderly are discarded, the pope said, “carries within it the virus of death.” Pope Francis has urged Catholics throughout his pontificate to not neglect the elderly and to honor the sense of memory they bring to society.

“A people that does not take care of grandparents, that does not treat them well, has no future,” Pope Francis said in 2017.

Being attentive

Schleppenbach said people need to be prepared to sacrifice for their elderly parents and relatives when they need their love and support.

“We need to start in our own homes, and make sure we are attentive to the needs of our parents when they are at the later stages of life,” Schleppenbach said, “making sure we are showing appropriate love to our parents when they are in need, and being willing to sacrifice, just as they sacrificed for us when we needed care as young children.”

McKeon, from Catholic Social Services of Rhode Island, added that in the concept of elderly housing, there was the idea that a community of elderly people would support each other. But what she has heard from people living in those settings is quite the opposite.

“It can be very isolating,” she said.

Telling OSV that Rhode Island has a high percentage of residents over age 85, McKeon said the likelihood of isolation also increases because the elderly often have had spouses, siblings and close friends die over the years.

“Although longevity is a blessing, it’s a mixed blessing because it comes with a lot of challenges,” said McKeon, who added that the Diocese of Providence has several elderly outreach programs that include a “friendly neighbor” initiative where someone will drop in and visit an elderly person. Oftentimes, an adult child who lives in another part of the country will request a visit for their elderly parent who has outlived her friends and family.

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“That’s a very common scenario,” McKeon said.

Yoshihara, from the Center for Family and Human Rights, said caring for the elderly is an important pastoral and pro-life issue.

“Each person should look out for the elderly in their own family, or the old person across the street,” Yoshihara said. “Bring them cookies, talk to them, learn from them, take in some history. Make sure your children spend time with older people.”

Schleppenbach said Catholics should start at home in being attentive to the needs of their elderly relatives. He said people also can support the various parish and diocesan ministries and outreach efforts for the homebound elderly.

“Anything we can do to reach out to the elderly who don’t have family, who are perhaps in a nursing or retirement home, to show them the love and attention that they deserve,” said Schleppenbach, who added that the elderly also still have a special role to play in the world.

“Their prayers are very effective,” Schleppenbach said. “No matter how physically limited someone is, their prayers can be the most powerful contribution to building a culture of life.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.