Loneliness in old age
Debolina Biswas says the feeling of loneliness or being detached from others is not just a human emotion; it is a complex emotional response to the lack of companionship. Although, days pass by with tremendous speed forcing each one of us to run with it at its pace, if we take a moment to stand and think about our relations and friendships, how many of us enjoy true companionship? It is said that one in every five persons is lonely and a majority of people don’t have anyone to talk to or spend time with, and this rate is increasing rapidly.
Loneliness has increased with modernisation, since people are engrossed in virtual social communities and networks and don’t have the urge to attend social gathering or stay in touch with family and friends. But, with time, loneliness and lack of companionship makes people vulnerable which affects physical and mental health and increase the chances of mental health disorders.
The culture of loneliness in old age hitherto confined to Caucasians and others in the so-called Western world is fast catching up on traditional Africans and other peoples who have for centuries enjoyed the social cushion provided by extended family system. Peoples of Europe minus the Italians, and North Americans are used to being thrown into Old Peoples Homes in their old age with once or twice-in-a-year visits by their children or grandchildren.
This is not so in Africa where children and grandchildren ensure that their aged and ageing parents are not abandoned and are provided company by live-in children or grandchildren or grandnieces and grandnephews or relations of some sort. Before unplanned urbanisation crept in to destroy the serene life of the Africans, old people walked short distances to visit each other and play traditional games of which ayo was the most popular.
But times have changed and have kept changing. Old people in Africa are beginning to taste the bitter pills of loneliness. The huge compounds of yore which used to accommodate three generations in the same family are fast disappearing and what we have instead are buildings and structures designed to accommodate small-member families; ‘me, my wife and two children.’ What this implies is that parents of the new-dawn couples are left severely on their own to be visited occasionally by their children living and working in major towns and cities. Even when parents and the married children live in the same town or city the fast life brought about by the New Age hardly allows room for the younger couples to visit their parents.
The pang of loneliness in old age begins as soon as the elders retire from active work and find themselves jobless and idle. People who have been used to getting up from bed at about 6:00 a.m. daily now find no reason to wake up before 8:00a.m. And even when they get up from bed and treat themselves to breakfast, the rest of the day is spent either reading the newspapers, listening to the radio and watching the television if and when there is power, and live the rest of the day in boredom.
Those who are going through this boring life of old age include retired public servants and male educated elite, widows and widowers, old single parents and individuals who never married and are now unmarriageable.
The worst-hit are retired public servants whose children have relocated abroad and have virtually nothing tangible to engage their expertise or time. A few of them may be lucky to have domestic aides, but those aides cannot meet the needed company and companionship required. Those of them whose children can provide funds to maintain drivers find to their chagrin that the drivers are grossly underemployed. We thus have a situation where both the driver and his employer spend each day in boring idleness.
It is easy to argue that retired public servants should engage themselves in farming or some small scale business. But the reality of the Nigerian socio-economic situation makes that option almost unworkable. Situations where able bodied virile young men and women are finding it difficult to succeed with farming and small scale industry how much are the chances of tired old men and women past age 65?
The male educated elite suffer a peculiar problem. For about half of the year their wives are jetting round the world spending time with their married daughters with the excuse of playing nannies to their grandchildren while they are left alone with the house help. You can hear the men grumbling to high heavens and threatening their wives that they may be forced to take younger wives to attend to their needs!
Old people who never got married in their youth and who probably end up having no families of their own suffer terrible loneliness. While growing old they could still enjoy the company of their nephews and nieces. But as soon as the nephews and nieces start building their own families and are advancing in age, they hardly have time or thought for these old unmarried uncles and aunts, and eventually abandon them to their ‘self inflicted’ fate.
Widows and widowers, both biologically beyond the age of taking new spouses are very pitiable species. However wealthy such widows and widowers may be they go through a life of boredom and loneliness even if they can afford to travel out and visit relations and tourist destinations. Their own kind of loneliness is in the mind, in the brain, in the heart. It is emotional loneliness that will probably go with them to their grave.
Loneliness is bad. Researchers’ findings have listed loneliness as one of the major causes of depression and death! According to Wikipedia, Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship.
Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people.
The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional or even physical factors.Loneliness in old age is, therefore, a more critical form of loneliness and it has been known to drive some old people to committing suicide.
While social and religious engagements may reduce the impact of loneliness in people generally, such engagements may not sufficiently serve the purpose of the old people who find themselves isolated from the companies they had always kept. When they retire to bed in their homes, the stark reality of loneliness stares them in the face and may actually choke them to death.
Governments and psychologists must recognise and accept loneliness as a major medical, mental, psychological, physical and social problem and devise lasting solutions that will provide succour to those afflicted with it.The pen is the tongue of the hand, the silent utterer of words for the eyes…Henry Beecher