Cigarettes come with a warning label, but loneliness does not. In fact, there is increasing coverage of the health effects of social isolation. Loneliness has been linked to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. Chronic loneliness poses as much of a health risk as smoking cigarettes.
Loneliness can distort our perceptions; it can make us believe that those around us care less than they actually do. As I’ve worked with families and prospective residents to help facilitate their move to The Redwoods I’ve seen a wide range of emotional reactions to the transition. One of the more interesting transitions was that of a woman who had, in many ways, been very social in her life before coming to The Redwoods. She had friends who stopped by to see her, and she had employed an at-home care-giver.
After being at The Redwoods for about a month, she sought me out to say, “I never realized how isolated I’d been before I came here!” This surprised me and caused me to reflect on just how powerful daily interactions with a variety of people can be, and how having a wide range of activities to choose from can build up our emotional reserves.
Wellness has many dimensions. We live in a culture that values the body more than the mind. Favoritism to our physical health over mental and emotional well-being comes at a cost. In the last 100-years, average life expectancy has increased nearly 30 years in the United States. Adults age 60 and older are the fastest growing segment of our society. This achievement gives rise to important questions: what do we want to do with an extra 30 years? We’ve created a new chapter in life, but have yet to fully envision it’s meaning and opportunity.
I see elders joining The Redwoods and reinventing their stories. Through community they are able to explore what their purpose can be in this next phase of life. So many of our residents contribute in powerful ways, organizing new groups such as a climate change study group, lobbying elected officials, sending gifts overseas to soldiers, raising funds for student scholarships, and more.
We all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and as humans, we can’t change that we’re hard-wired for love and belonging. We’re meant to connect with one another, to engage, and to contribute meaning and purpose to life. The wisdom of the elders at The Redwoods has taught me to let my circles of connection expand rather than contract, that belonging is a birthright, and that my purpose is tied to my service to others.