Going solo does not have to be lonely
In an age where there are all sorts of cure-alls on the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social media communications topics, one thought goes unaddressed: loneliness. During my 36 years in chemical dependency counseling and mental health work, loneliness goes unaddressed.
There is no doubt that physical problems are linked to loneliness For example seniors, ages 70 to 80 have increased their addiction rates by 35% over the last 10 years. Many of their drinking and drugging problems go unaddressed and contribute to their loneliness. Seniors who socially isolate due to alcohol and other drugs, have the risk of premature death like smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Social isolation increases the risk for coronary heart disease (29%), stroke (32%), dementia (40%) and general mortality (29%). In speaking with many seniors over the years, many are in denial that a problem exists. Many are living alone, do not get treatment and are very good at hiding their addiction with the thoughts of “it’s just a few beers every day and smoking weed on weekends!” Unbeknownst to the elderly is the idea that loneliness and social isolation too often sabotage health, treatment and well-being.
The most vulnerable population of seniors are those aging in rural areas. For example, an older individual, who lives a good distance from a town center, might lose a spouse, no longer drive, live on a tight fixed income, struggle with mobility issues; have adult children move away and friends. When we add in that, these rural areas are often under-served.
We mentioned that physical problems can contribute to loneliness. Half of adults 75 or older have disabling hearing loss.
In rural areas, 46% of adults live with untreated hearing loss, chemical dependency treatment, or good health care. Speaking with physicians, they don’t want to admit they are having trouble hearing, and they often hold back from telling anyone they’re lonely.
I have often said in REBT class: “just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you have to be lonely.” Social isolation can increase the risk of early death.
Working with the elderly presents a problem of “inertia” or “a body at rest tends to stay at rest.” Getting them to get on a schedule, leave the house, shop, play, golf, take a walk every day, go to the Senior Center a couple of times a week or even if there are disabilities, opens up a whole new ballgame. Loneliness will end when sharing our stories, making ourselves visible and vulnerable to others. If you don’t believe me, contact those in the “Wounded Warriors Projects” and you will have a great change in thinking and behavior from those who have survived traumatic events. Empowering aging adults to live their best healthy lives with access to physical activity, food security, sound nutrition, social engagement and human connection to combat loneliness is the goal.
One of the greatest difficulties with aging seniors is motivation. “I’m not 21 anymore and you want me to join a gym?” To get him or her out of the bars or clubs, that are social in the wrong way means a change in thinking. When you have “signed in” every day for 25 years, had a few beers before dinner, it develops into a “lifestyle” that becomes hard to break. I’m not downing those that practice this lifestyle, just those that are miserable and lonely and desire to change their behaviors.
Counselors in chemical dependency counseling exhibit great compassion in trying to get this population to change their life and behaviors. I think in our profession this trait of compassion by the men and women I worked with has always struck me as special. At Tri-County we used to say, “random acts of kindness.” Thus trying to get clients to rise out of the ashes from trauma becomes the goal. Loneliness, isolation and depression are just chapters in the book. The rest of the book will be written by the client and take the trauma and turn it into a life-changing event. In REBT, we teach that few things are really, “awful,” “terrible,” or “horrible.” There are events that are unfair, intolerable and hard to accept, that a person’s thinking and behavior needs to change with. Self-worth is a big goal in counseling loneliness and trying to motivate clients to do better. There is no “magic wand” and many times it is one step forward and four steps back. Many of our clients tend to rely on the counselor too much and fail to realize that they hold the power to their recovery which means making changes and taking responsibility for them.
For those seniors out there that are reading this article and agree that they would like to take a chance in making their life better rather than living in loneliness — there is a telephone number after each article. Call me and I’ll try to point you in the correct direction.
Mike Tramuta has been a counselor for more than 30 years. Call 983-1592 for more information.