Loneliness is a crowded community

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Perk Kreilein, left, Bonnie Gehlhausen and Carol Haas, all of Jasper, chat over coffee at Burger King in Jasper on Monday. The women meet twice a week before the sun comes up. "They say laughter adds 10 years to your life, so we figure we'll live to be 150," Haas said.

Special to The Herald

The sun has yet to rise on this cold Monday morning in February, and Carol Haas and Perk Kreilein are the lone diners in Burger King on Jasper’s north side. (“Diners” is a misnomer; each is nursing a 63-cent cup of coffee.) Their laughter echoes in the room as they await the arrival of Bonnie Gehlhausen, the third member of their twice-a-week coffee klatch.

The three Jasper women started meeting daily, with toddlers in tow, 50 years ago in each other’s homes. Other young mothers joined them then, and they formed an informal support group as they raised their children.

After that, Bonnie, Carol, Perk and a handful of other women met at Yaggi’s restaurant on Jackson Street. When Yaggi’s closed some years ago, the group “tried every place that had coffee,” Bonnie says, and landed at Burger King.

The friendships that formed before “Sesame Street” debuted and man walked on the moon continue to sustain them.

“Keeping up with the connections throughout the years” is important, Bonnie says.

“Growing old, one of the hardest things is losing friends,” Carol adds.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Nikki Nale is a therapist at Memorial Counseling Center whose caseload includes a large number of patients age 65 and older. At least once a day, she says, she has a conversation about geriatric isolation or, in simpler terms, loneliness among the elderly. The conversation might start with someone coming to her for grief, alcoholism or anxiety counseling. “Being alone doesn’t help any of those problems,” she says. “It only exacerbates those issues.”

As aging individuals become less mobile in many cases, find it hard to adjust after retirement in some cases and see friends pass away in nearly all cases, “that’s very eye-opening,” Nale says. “You’re not doing dances and dinners anymore, you’re doing funerals.”

Loneliness among American adults has been on the rise since the 1980s, when 20 percent reported feeling lonely. In 2018, according to the AARP Foundation, 35 percent of Americans older than 45 reported being lonely. (Increasing numbers of young people also report feeling lonely; that is a topic for another time.)

Dr. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience who studied loneliness for decades before he died last year, found that loneliness can increase stress hormones, raise blood pressure, decrease blood flow to vital organs and impair one’s immune system. Other research has added sleep disruptions, increased inflammation, dementia, earlier death and higher risk for heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes to the list of adverse effects of isolation.

A few years ago neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the region of the brain that causes feelings of loneliness is the same region of the brain linked to depression.

Of course, one can be alone and perfectly content. It is when one isolates oneself that the physical and mental health problems come in. Isolating can look a lot like depression, Nale says, with symptoms including low self-confidence, low self-esteem, a lack of human connection and thoughts of “Why am I here?”

Senior isolation is a problem not unique to the United States. Last year, Britain Prime Minister Theresa May created a “ministry for loneliness” in that country.

Loneliness can creep in for any number of reasons as one ages, including the death of a spouse or friends, adult children leaving home, a failure to adjust to retirement, giving up one’s driver’s license and the natural decline of physical health that generally accompanies growing older.

Nale cautions that even people who don’t live alone can experience loneliness if they are not connecting with those with whom they share their home.

“We’re all human, and that’s what we all want is relationships. That’s biological,” she says.

Still, seeking help is rarely easy. “It is easier to isolate,” Nale says. “It is easier to keep the status quo and stay at home where everything is familiar — and that perpetuates the problem.”

When it comes to social isolation, Nale says the biggest challenge is getting people to take a step out of their house.

She finds that many of her initial conversations with senior patients seeing her specifically because of feeling lonely begin with the individual attributing the visit to a primary care physician: “My PCP said I should come talk to you. I don’t think I need to.”

She rushes to reassure them: “You are not the only people who feel alone.”

If she started a group for lonely seniors, she says, “and people had the courage to come, you’d meet 50 other people [like yourself]. I think the reality is, people who are alone, I don’t see most of them. I know it has to exist 100 times more than I’m seeing it, because most people don’t reach out, don’t know how to reach out for help.”

In validating that “feeling lonely sucks,” she gives her patients permission to feel that way. She notes that people who live alone might not have been hugged or touched for weeks. Perhaps they have not talked to another person for days or more.

By the time the patient leaves Nale’s office at the end of the session, they have talked about potential solutions and the therapist usually has issued at least one “mini challenge.” These have included phoning an old friend the individual has lost touch with, going to the local senior center or some other gathering place to see what activities are offered there and becoming involved with one’s church community.

She often hears “I can’t do that” and “I don’t want to be a burden to my kids.” She urges her patients not to put up barriers where there are none.

Her goal is to get activities on the individual’s calendar besides doctor visits and funerals, things to look forward to to help fill the void and be proud of after the fact. “What we’re trying to do is make connections, have little successes, build some confidence,” Nale says.

When one of her patients accomplishes one of Nale’s challenges, she says, “their affect is brighter. [They take] pride in ‘I did something scary and I achieved it and it’s done me some good.’”

Two of her go-to suggestions for someone experiencing loneliness are to sit at McDonald’s and say hello to two people, and to walk laps at Walmart twice a week.

When she issues a challenge, she tells her patients that they should not be discouraged if they fail. She urges them to keep attempting to engage with others.

She also asks them to maintain good sleep habits, good hygiene and exercise, all of which have been shown to help prevent geriatric isolation. Exercise is particularly beneficial, as it arouses endorphins that then provide energy to put into other activities.

Nale beams on her way to work when she passes a restaurant where “these little hubs of people” like Bonnie, Carol and Perk are gathered. She knows that at least some in those groups are “fighting the urge to isolate. They’re fighting the easy way out, which is being alone.” The interaction, “the reciprocity over coffee” — no matter how trivial the conversation — is important, she says. “We are social beings. We crave human interaction. We are not meant to be alone and isolated.”

“You’ve got to keep busy. I think that’s the secret” to combatting loneliness, Carol says. “There are definitely things to do if you want to do something. I do think that’s an advantage of living in a small town: The connection is there. If you do it, the connection is there.”

She and her husband regularly go out to eat with friends. Perk and her husband routinely play cards with other couples. All three of the women have other friends with whom they customarily meet for lunch or dinner.

“I can see how people can become isolated,” says Bonnie, who is single. “You lose confidence in yourself. Your comfort and security is at home.”

Bonnie has a beauty shop in her home and is moving to working only half-days. She wonders about the day she quits work completely. “These people have been my social life for 45 years,” she says of her customers.

She suggests that sometimes it can take a friend to encourage someone to get out. Maybe the friend even needs to go with her, to lead her to a new activity a few times until she is comfortable on her own, Carol adds.

The ladies are glad they have kept up with each other over the years, so that as seniors, they know they can reach out to each other.

Perk shares the advice she has given her daughter: “Whatever you do, keep your friends. When you get older, don’t just be sitting around alone.”

Suggestions to prevent isolation

It is easier to ward off loneliness than to recover from it. With that in mind, I have started a list of activities that could help prevent isolation as you age. Here goes:

Some people volunteer. The list of places and organizations that could use extra help is long and broad. The community meal program, the county food bank and local food pantries, community corrections, the county museum, Memorial Hospital and area nursing homes are among the nonprofit organizations that could use your help.

Call an organization directly, or contact the Tri-Cap Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which can match your interests with volunteer needs in the community. The phone number for the RSVP program is 812-482-2233, ext. 112.

If you already belong to a church, check into activities there. Many churches sponsor a variety of groups, including women’s sodalities, men’s clubs, support groups and youth groups that need volunteer leaders. Some also need help preparing and serving funeral lunches. Some routinely sponsor feasible day trips to regional places of interest.

If you have a hard time adjusting after retirement, you might consider getting a part-time job. When a Jasper woman’s husband died suddenly, “I had to kind of create a whole new way of living,” she said, noting that it “took some time” to come up with what works for her as far as getting involved in activities. She now works a few days a week and is glad for the new camaraderie she has found with co-workers of a variety of ages.

She also has learned to “stop worrying about being the third wheel or the fifth wheel” with her couple friends and goes out with them when invited.

Take an exercise class geared toward seniors. They are offered not only at senior centers, but also at the YMCA in Ferdinand and at Memorial Southside Office in Jasper.

Go for a walk. Outdoor walking paths have sprung up across the county over the past several years, and indoor walking can be done at the Ruxer Student Center at Vincennes University Jasper Campus and other locales. Many gym memberships for seniors come at a reduced price.

Walk at Walmart, Rural King, The Home Depot or another vast commercial space. I work at the St. Vincent de Paul Store part time and know one woman who walks laps even there. I know several seniors who come to the store regularly just to get out of the house.

A business on Fourth Street in Huntingburg, Serendipity Fibers, always has a couch open for crocheting, knitting and connecting with fellow needlers.

Check out what free activities are available at your local library. Offerings regularly include book clubs, computer and genealogy classes, speakers and crafting sessions.

Seniors gather for a morning cup of coffee at any number of restaurants across Dubois County. In Jasper, I have learned of breakfast groups at Burger King, Azura Grill & Cafe, Denny’s, Hardee’s, Headquarters and both McDonald’s locations. The Subway restaurant in Huntingburg also is a gathering spot.

Take in a play or musical performance at the Jasper Arts Center or attend a production at a local high school or middle school.

Huntingburg will have free movies on upcoming Mondays thanks to the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement. A showing of “Eddie the Eagle” is set for 7 p.m. March 18 at Serendipity Fibers, 415 E. Fourth St., and “Amazing Grace” will be shown at 7 p.m. April 15 at The Gaslight, 328 E. Fourth St. The collaboration also calls for touring art exhibits, elder art workshops and creative writing workshops and readings. Keep an eye out for when and where these subsequent activities land.

In the summer, the Jasper Riverwalk plaza is home to the free Riverwalk Concert Series. “Just take a chair and go,” advises one senior. “You don’t have to know anybody.”

Find out if your high school graduating class meets informally for lunch or dinner. Many have regular monthly gatherings. (If yours doesn’t, it takes just you and one fellow classmate to get one started.)

Several nursing homes in the county offer seniors a complimentary meal and a speaker periodically. (While there, you are invited to tour the facility and learn about its services, but there are no strings attached.)

The Timbers of Jasper gives away 75 tickets each month for seniors to see a movie at Jasper 8 Cinemas. Showtime is 3:30 p.m. on the third Monday of the month, and tickets for the next month’s showing are available at the facility, at 2909 Howard Drive, the following day.

If you have a health problem, find out if a support group is offered for it. Being with other people in like circumstances can keep you from feeling that you are going through your troubles alone. “A support system is one of the most important things when someone has issues,” says Memorial Counseling Center’s Nikki Nale, a licensed clinical social worker. Support groups also are offered locally for caregivers, those suffering grief and myriad other concerns.

If you reside in a nursing home, the activities director can help you seek out other residents with common interests. See what activities are on the day’s schedule and attend any that might interest you. Share your life experiences/life stories with others in conversation.

If you are feeling lonely to the extent that it is interfering with your normal day-to-day life, get professional help. To schedule a counseling appointment, call Memorial Counseling Center at 812-996-5780, LifeSpring Health Systems at 812-482-3020 or another counseling center.

If you are a family member, neighbor, friend, fellow church member or anyone else who fears someone you know might be isolating himself or herself, there is a role for you, too, in helping to prevent that. Simply put, reach out.

You can do that by: offering a ride to church; sending a thinking-of-you card; offering to go with someone to an activity for the first time, until the person gets used to it and feels confident going alone; or being available to take an elderly person to visit a friend or to visit a doctor.

Do you know of other free or low-cost activities for local seniors? What about additional ways others can reach out to someone who might be experiencing loneliness? Send your suggestions to me at mtrasche@twc.com, or call me at 812-630-8992, for inclusion in a future column.

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.

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