There’s an assumption that single people of a certain age are lonely — but many seniors prefer peaceful solitude without interference from family and friends.
Warren Goldswain / 123RF Photo
There’s been a lot of press about loneliness lately, especially aging and loneliness. You’ve probably seen the German commercial featuring an elderly man who pretends to be dead, hoping his kids will finally come home for the holidays.
This commercial has gone viral and reactions are all over the map. Writing in the Washington Post, Colby Itkowitz suggests the commercial will “resonate” with viewers: “Witnessing an elderly person eating a meal alone is a heartwrenching sight,” he says. There’s an assumption that older singles are lonely — but many seniors prefer peaceful solitude without interference from family and friends.
At the other extreme, commenters see the man in the commercial as a manipulative grinch. No wonder his kids didn’t want to visit, they say. He seems to be comfortably off. If the family won’t come, why doesn’t he take a holiday cruise or find something to occupy his time?
In fact, for many singles, eating a meal alone isn’t heartwrenching. It’s liberating. You choose your food. You read a book or watch a video. Maybe you skip dinner and go to a movie. And you can point to a BBC article, which points out that many people voluntarily choose to spend the holidays on their own.
Sure, it’s nice to share dinner with a good friend. But sitting around a table with strangers to avoid loneliness? Making small talk with somebody else’s relatives you’ll never see again? No thanks.
Second, the commercial suggests that anyone who feels lonely is entitled to companionship, especially in the form of visits from adult children. The truth is, families create emotional memories that would scare away the most well-meaning kinfolk.
How about this message from a relative: “You’re so mean and selfish! Why won’t you come visit us?”
Or how about favoring one child over another? In a Wall Street Journal Q&A, a reader wrote that her son scheduled his marriage on the same day her daughter was getting a Ph.D. This reader felt the daughter should sacrifice her graduation to attend the brother’s wedding. The daughter wouldn’t be in the wedding party; she’d be assigned to “manage the guest book.” The WSJ columnist agreed.
As singles expert Bella DePaulo pointed out on her PsychCentral blog, a Ph.D. lasts a lifetime while fully half of marriages end. As a single person, I hope that daughter divorces her family and gets on with her life. If they keep her on the margins of a family wedding, she can keep them at a distance on the holidays.
Apart from history, who wants to visit needy, dependent people?
Family visits are like bank loans. They’re more likely to come when you don’t need them. Grandparents who create a busy lifestyle tend to get visited. And when the kids stay away, they’re too busy to care.
What if we turned these loneliness complaints around? What if we advise anyone who is lonely to create a life that’s going to attract visitors? Get a gym membership, a dog, and a social life.
If you can get around and you have a dog, especially in an urban neighborhood, you will not be alone all day. You will be healthier and you will meet many wonderful dog owners. In fact, a lot of senior loneliness would be disappear if laws were changed to allow people over 65 to have dogs wherever they live.
Finally, many people are lonely because (a) they’ve been taught there’s something wrong with them if they’re not coupled up; b) they can’t drive and don’t have access to public transportation; and (c) age discrimination forces people to stop working earlier than they would otherwise.
As for (b) and (c), we don’t need more psychological analysis or guilt trips inflicted on distant relatives. We need urban planning and aggressive attacks on stereotypes.
Ashamed of being alone? Look around and review the research. Read Anthony Storr’s book, Solitude. Storr, a British psychiatrist, argues that his own profession focuses too much on relationships and not enough on the joys of work and solitary joys. Also read Bella DePaulo’s book, Singled Out, where she exposes flaws in research showing that marriage leads to superior mental health.
These attitudes ultimately lead to serious harm, as when older people are shoved into institutions because of beliefs that anything’s better than solitude. In her book Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby describes a man who jumped off a bridge when he was forced to live 24/7 with a caretaker. He’d literally die for solitude. Many singles feel the same way.
Copyright © Cathy Goodwin/2020 Singular Communications, LLC.
Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., is an online copywriter who helps business owners develop a professional, authentic presence online. She is a former college professor, published author and accomplished speaker. Visit Cathy’s website to learn more.