By Donna Mischke

Last week I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a story about a 90-year-old woman who wrote a letter to her neighbor asking if she would be her friend. Apparently, this woman was desperate for some human connection, so she bravely reached out to the neighbor. She said that her family lived far away and most of her friends had passed away. More than anything, she just wanted a friend. It was a very sweet story that ended well. However, it left me thinking how many other elderly people were out there that might be too afraid or shy to reach out and ask for help when they need it?

My mother-in-law lived in the same home for over 40 years. When all her children had moved out of the home, she had a wonderful support system with her neighbors. She had built relationships with them over the years. The younger neighbor kids would mow her lawn and rake leaves. She would often go outside to find that some nice neighbor had shoveled the snow in her driveway and sidewalks just to be nice. The neighbors took care of her. They knew she was alone and could use the help. As the years passed though, many people began to move out of the neighborhood and before long, she no longer knew many of the new neighbors. It became more difficult as she aged to get out and meet the new people.

Times have changed. When I was younger, every neighbor knew each other and regularly visited. Of course, back then all the kids played outside. Many of the mothers did not work and would visit daily even if it was only for a quick cup of coffee or to borrow some sugar. Social media did not exist, so people were forced to go out and make connections with other people. Only a small percentage of people today over 70 use social media, and still prefer that one-on-one connection. Studies show that people need and want relationships and connections with other people. Lack of social contact with others can lead to many health problems and has even been linked to an early death.

According to a recent survey, almost half of people over the age of 75 live alone. Loneliness is said to be worse for your health than being obese or smoking cigarettes. Being alone can increase the chances of getting dementia, heart disease and depression. Lonely people are 30% more likely to die earlier than those who are surrounded by family and friends. Most seniors want to age in place and stay in their homes if they can, which is understandable, but often they are not getting the social stimulation needed to keep their minds and bodies healthy.

Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory says that “The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention. As a social species, we are accountable to help our lonely children, parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility.”

My mother-in-law now lives in a Retirement Community where she is surrounded by other senior citizens. She plays bingo and has coffee daily with a group of ladies around her same age. She wasn’t initially happy about selling her home and moving, but now she is having a great time and is surrounded by people just like her. Retirement communities, assisted living facilities and adult family homes are great options for people to live out the later years of life. There is always plenty of support and built in friends.

If you know someone who may need a friend, or if you find yourself combatting loneliness, be proactive and do not be afraid to reach out and invite a neighbor or friend over for coffee. Additionally, there are many senior organizations to join where you can interact with others on a regular basis. Do your part to help yourself or someone else who may be in a lonely situation. It may help you live longer.