Because of the social distancing imposed by the current emergency, this would seem to be an appropriate time for this subject. As we grow older, we find ourselves increasingly cut off from the world in a number of different ways. And isolation by definition results in loneliness!
First of all, there is the deterioration of our senses. They are what keep us in contact with the surrounding world, and when they start to go, so does that contact. At some point as our hearing fails us, we are restricted in our ability to engage in conversations with others. And after a while folks quit even trying to talk to us very much because they know that the exchange will be difficult. Isolation.
My wife sometimes becomes exasperated with me because I do not dive into the middle of the muddle when all our family is here. However, I have a little hearing loss in my left ear, and with a large crowd talking at all at once, I have real difficulty separating one sound from another, so much of the time I will just read and let them talk.
If I want to visit with someone these days, I can go see him. However, the day is coming when I will not be able to go, and so if I talk to people they will have to come to me. They will promise to do so, and they will have good intentions, but younger people have lots to do, and usually intentions do not become reality. And right now visits to most of the facilities for the elderly are restricted, anyway. Isolation.
My wife’s grandmother lived to be 100 years old, and I recall vividly that at her graveside service there was no one present who was from her generation. She had outlived her contemporaries. That is why we sometimes hear elderly people say, in order to indicate that they are not fearful of death, “I have more friends over there than I have here.” Isolation.
There is one aspect of the loneliness of extreme old age that I fear most people overlook. At some point the elderly begin to feel that they are irrelevant. Even if we still are of sound mind and able to converse, there comes a point at which no one cares about our experiences and opinions.
For example, a few weeks ago I wrote about a man I knew who had played basketball against Nate Thurmond, and a couple of years ago I contributed an account of a conversation I had with a man who had been a high school teammate of Oscar Robertson. They were all-time great basketball players, but except for those few who are students of the game, few youngsters today would even know who they were. And as the years pass that situation will become more pronounced until the time arrives when my memories on that (or any) subject will have no relevance for anyone. Isolation.
My mother’s older sister and her husband lived into their upper 80s. She died first, and for a while the family hired a housekeeper to care for him during the daytime hours. Once when we stopped by to visit, she told us that he would sometimes sit by himself in the living room with tears rolling down his cheeks as he remembered his wife.
Uncle Carroll often had a gruff, irritable demeanor, and many who knew him might not have guessed that he was capable of such tender emotions. Yet there he was, sitting alone with his memories, and no one to share them with. The final loneliness can be a very cruel thing.