Loneliness: As you grow older, your losses increase. Friends and family, your support system, may become less available for a variety of reasons. As a result, you may feel lonely. Even if you have not lost your loved ones, you can sometimes feel lonely even with people around you. If the relationships you do have are inadequate, you may experience loneliness. Loneliness may occur because you miss various forms of relationships such as being a companion, a best friend, having someone with whom you share responsibility of chores, being a love mate, having someone with whom you can fight, and being a sexual partner. Belonging is an important component of living, and if one does not feel a strong sense of belonging in the later stages of life, that person is bound to feel lonely.
To further complicate matters, the recent loss of a loved one may cause your friends and family to emotionally pull away from you because your suffering is too painful for them and the support you used to have, may not be available. You may feel you lack the self-confidence or social skills to reach out and risk new relationships, or may be you are one of those independent types who does not want to depend on anyone or feel like you are a burden on them.
Traditionally, extended families were a major source of support, but our transient society has brought about a change in the system. Even those families that live very close, sometimes can have a negative effect on the well-being of an older family member. You probably have friends who have children that have allowed their parents to become totally dependent on them. Family members who have maladjustments with their parents are not doing them any favor, but helping the parents to adjust to the increasing age in a better manner. Or you may know others whose children have moved in with them physically but emotionally they find it difficult to adjust with one another. In some cases, the adult children may be unnecessarily causing the parents worry or depression because they vent their problems on their parents. Or you may even be aware of a few senior friends whose extended family is simply unavailable or uninterested in providing the necessary moral support when it is needed.
Self-imposed loneliness may be the greatest threat to some seniors. Unable to adapt to the normal changes of aging or to work through their disappointments and losses, they become bitter and resentful. Ironically, they often push away those who may be trying to offer support. Once you have been hurt deeply by a loss or rejection, you naturally feel very hesitant about trusting again. A period of mourning is essential in order to recover from this situation.
If you have experienced grief, you know that many feelings are involved. It could take a year or more to overcome this grief, and during this period there are certain stages that you go through: shock, numbness, fantasy, denial, reality, emotions, remembering of events and repeating them in daily conversation. The mourning period provides an opportunity for you to re-experience all the conflicting emotions of a relationship with a loved one. Passion, resentment, delight and guilt are but a few of the feelings that can be drawn on as you rebuild new kinds of mutual, supportive relationships.
Connectedness: There are no magic answers to overcoming grief. Giving yourself permission to live through the feelings while you tell your story over and over gives your body and mind time to adjust to your loss. Sometimes, because of mutual suffering or geographical distance, it is difficult to share your feelings with your family. Support groups, friends, neighbors, ministers, priests, and therapists might provide you with the help you need to work through the stages of suffering and grief. Just as a physical wound needs to bleed in order to heal, emotional wounds likewise need to flow through sharing. That way you not only work through the intensity of the emotion, but you are also eventually able to see both the bad and the good about the lost person. Survivors of long-term intimate relationships may never finish grieving, but they are able to move to a place where their feelings do not consume every minute of their thinking and feeling.
The feeling that you are being deprived of understanding, acceptance and care can be overcome in two ways. You can redefine your situation. One woman who recently lost her husband of 30 years said, "I am not going to ever get that close to anyone again because it hurts too much." Her choices were redefined so that she had two options. She could decide to never allow herself closeness again in order to protect against the pain of another loss — loneliness might be the result of that choice. Or she could reach out and make herself vulnerable to a loss again in the future, but with the possibility of another meaningful relationship.
The other alternative is to modify some of your relationships. Have you ever found yourself sitting and waiting for someone to call you? There is bound to be one person with whom you would like to develop a more meaningful relationship. Remember, loneliness is associated with withdrawal from creativity, poor morale and inadequate mental and physical health. Take the initiative and reach out to a new person. Perhaps, a new attempt to reconnect with your extended family may be a start. Extended families and other sources of support can have a positive impact on the health of older adults. Families can encourage good health practices, tasks such as regular medical check-ups, good nutritional habits, and reactions associated with grief and loneliness. And, occasionally, the extended family can provide the direct care that is needed in a crisis. Healthy feelings of connectedness can greatly enhance the general well-being of older adults and, therefore, make them less vulnerable to illness.
When retirement comes, you may desire more closeness with other people. Many forms of intimacy can be developed whether in marriage, family, or other relationships. Essentially, intimacy is a process, by which you choose to share your thoughts, feelings, needs and desires with another person. That process is not always easy; attempts to intimate with another person can produce tension as well as relaxation. Many people spend their whole lives avoiding close, intimate encounters. They may have a deep hunger for closeness, but, for whatever reasons, they simply are not used to intimately relating to others. In any relationship, two people have to learn to emotionally dance with each other. The first few steps might be a little awkward, but with practice the process becomes smoother.
With retirement, you probably find yourself having a great deal more time with your family and friends. Your closeness may be deepened by creatively enriching your time together. Effective communication can enable you to continue renegotiating your emotional contacts day-by-day. Everyone communicates with words and body language, but not everyone communicates effectively. Some of the elements of good communication are active listening, clarifying feedback, sharing feelings and following-up with a response, which makes the relationship deeper. Also, the ability to demonstrate accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth, and genuineness further enable your communication to become effective. All these skills can be developed with practice.
Sharing experiences is another area that can deepen your intimacy. Talking about things that you need and want out of life, doing things with friends, traveling and discussing a stimulating new book or movie can produce some interesting new avenues of discovery.
One common problem faced by couples in retirement is too much togetherness. Even if you are enriching your togetherness, you need to give yourself and your partner sufficient space. A routine, allowing each partner to pursue some personal interests can balance the times of togetherness. Otherwise, you may begin to put too much pressure on each other to meet all your needs. A healthy interdependent relationship in the later years can significantly increase your intimacy with other supportive persons.
Finally, creative conflict resolution skills can add to your level of intimacy. People who are able to talk effectively, especially those who talk through disagreements and misunderstandings, will reach far greater levels of closeness than those who get stuck up in unproductive ruts. If you have ever ploughed a field with a mule, you know how hard it is to start a new rut. The plough just naturally falls into the old one. Communication patterns can get stuck the same way.
In a study on couples, it has been seen that the blood pressure tends to rise in one or both the partners when their conflict resolution pattern has fallen into a consistent rut. We call this the 'nag and grunt' approach to conflict resolution, which means one person nags and the other one grunts. In other words, one is dominant and the other is passive, and they never change places.
Couples who are able to communicate more effectively use many different patterns. Sometimes they nag and grunt; sometimes they fight; at times they talk rationally; other times they may use humor. You may want to try this exercise that some have found helpful in breaking out of a nonproductive conflict. Agree on a 15-minute period of time each day when you sit back-to-back. On alternate days, you will talk and the other will listen. You can come back to the same topic or talk about something totally different. Just remember not to discuss the same issues between exercises. Try this exercise for a week and see if you have a better understanding of each other that may positively affect your communication style.
- I have one or more friends in whom I can confide personal matters.
- I am able to speak openly about my feelings when I am angry or worried.
- I do something for fun at least once a week.
- I take a few quiet moments for myself during the day.
- I am satisfied with my ability to reach out to others for support.
- I feel good about my ability to solve conflicts.
- My communication skills are effective in the developing of caring relationships.
- I have little trouble telling others what I need.