Paul McCartney asked the question years ago: “Look at all the lonely people….where do they all come from?” We live in a culture that promotes living in our own homes as long as possible. We value our independence. We live where we live, regardless of family support close at hand. Have we, perhaps, set ourselves up to promote loneliness? Particularly in our later years?
Fifty percent of people over the age of 65 live alone. We call it “aging in place.” Janice Blanchard concludes in her 2014 blog article, “Without social interaction, meaning, and purpose, advanced aging in one’s home, often alone, can result in dwindling choices and mounting levels of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom—the same three plagues of nursing homes.” In an article in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers concluded that chronic loneliness in those over the age of 60 can lead to increases in health care issues. Award winning journalist and Executive Editor of My Senior Portal concludes the following: “Older people who are isolated are at risk for almost every physical and psychological problem known to [human]kind. They feel unconnected to others in the community. The disconnect creates stress, high blood pressure, more chronic diseases, depression, more subject to elder abuse, cognitive decline and risk of dementia and finally premature death.”
There are many responses to such research, most of which usually involve the invention of new institutions, organizations and “new” models of community partnerships or businesses. What is blatantly missing, in my view of the research of aging, is that the church is already in place in the very communities where people are feeling lonely. That is, the church is already in place in the very locations where people are aging in their own homes.
We know that the church has a long history of organizing volunteers to reach out and help those who are vulnerable and lonely. The church’s mission is all about helping people find meaning and purpose. The church has centuries of experience on how to partner with others and bring organizations together to meet the needs of their own people and those who live in our own neighborhoods. So, church…how about it? What can we do to help tear down walls of isolation and loneliness and help support the elders among us?
As a local church pastor, I knew and visited Eleanor and accepted her “excuse” that she couldn’t come to church on Sunday mornings because her medication made her mornings very difficult to maneuver. Did I ask her how the church could be more accommodating to her needs or offer to bring people to her? No.
I also knew that it was very difficult for me to visit with Helen during my afternoon pastoral visiting schedule because it always seemed that she had doctor visits. Did I try to find other times when she might be home? Did it occur to me that her scheduled doctor visits were her primary source of social interaction and that better contacts through the church might help decrease those health related appointments (as research seems to suggest)? No. My schedule was full.
Or what about Karyn who came to worship, shook my hand on her way out the door as she shared her latest woes, then disappeared until her next Sunday morning worship “visit” the following month? I knew that she was lonely. I knew that she was isolated even though she resisted attempts for further involvement. But did we persist long enough to help find a way to connect her to others? Probably not.
It is easy to come up with excuses as to why we can’t be bothered with the needs of older adults. It is easy to blame them for their feelings of loneliness (if they’d only get out more!). It is easy for them to resist changing our own patterns, just as it is easy for us to resist changing the patterns of the church. And in our collective resistance, we risk letting our elders slip away into the isolation of their own homes.
But our faith is not about taking the easy road, it is about taking the path that leads us to listen to our companions on the journey. Addressing the underlying issues that lead to loneliness is a spiritual issue. It is also a health issue. Given the growing demographics of older adults, it is a growing national issue. It is also a very real opportunity for the church to be in mission in the very communities in which we live, if only we were to take the time to look and listen. “Where do all the lonely people come from?” From your community and mine.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member ministry of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.