I suspect we’d all be surprised to know the number of elderly people who live alone right now, trapped inside by COVID-19. I don’t know the number either, but the U.S. Census Bureau reported that twenty-eight percent of U.S. citizens over the age of 65 live alone—that’s about 11 million, and those numbers reflect pre-COVID times. When my father was still living at home before Alzheimer’s sent him to a nursing home, he looked forward daily to his visits and meals at the local Senior Citizen’s Center. He told me often of conversations he’d had with friends there who were his age or in the same age range.
He even had a December romance, albeit a short one. After he became unable to go with us, my sister and I took turns staying with him while the other went to church. She stayed with him on Sunday mornings; I went up and visited with him Sunday nights while she went. One night he asked me, “What do you think about my dating a lady I met at the center? Your mama’s been gone quite a while now, and it gets awful lonesome around here.”
“Well, Daddy, at 82, I think you’re probably old enough to make up your own mind,” I replied. “I certainly don’t mind.”
“How about your sister? You think she’d mind?”
“I don’t think so. Why would she?”
Sarah Nell told me later that she’d had the same conversation with him, and the dating began. Then the Sunday night conversations contained lots of information about Mrs. Collins, how they liked to play Chinese checkers, what shows they watched on television, and some gourmet dish she’d made for him. He was happy again. . . for a while that is.
One night out of the blue, he said, “She wants to get married.”
Since we’d been talking about something else, I was lost for a moment.
“Who?” I asked.
“Mrs. Collins. Who’d you think I meant?”
“Well, by all means, marry her if you want to,” I told him.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “I don’t want to. When I die, I don’t want two wives waiting for me at Heaven’s gate. I couldn’t deal with that.”
And so, he chose to remain single the rest of his days and she found a man who did want to marry. He had plenty of company though. Sarah Nell lived with him and I saw him often. Once he went to the nursing home, we visited daily. COVID changed the options though. Dating, running to Walmart or out to eat are no longer options to help the elderly ward off loneliness.
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness 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. While living alone does not necessarily cause senior loneliness in all individuals, it is the biggest single contributing factor. This number is also likely to rise. The AARP reports that more and more adults are not having children, which means there will be fewer family members to provide company and care as adults become seniors.
A couple of my elderly friends have told me about seeing young neighbors out in the yard and talking to them over the fence or from a distance. Usually, those neighbors say, “Now if you ever need us, just call. We’re only a phone call away.”
However sincere those invitations to call for help are, cellular phone numbers are no longer readily accessible. There is no central location like a phone book to find them. Perhaps a solution would be to write the cell phone numbers on a note card to put on the refrigerator for easy access. Then if a need really does arise and it might, the needy one could find the number and call. Also, a phone call could do wonders to assuage loneliness, at least temporarily. And outside visits help. Certainly, as long as COVID hangs around, we all need to check on each other, especially our elderly neighbors and relatives. We might even save lives or sanity that way.