Old and Alone? That depends.
In discussion with a colleague, we came to an impasse. Both of our viewpoints were opinion based; neither of us was willing to sway. She ended our exchange by saying, "This is why you are going to die old and alone." I know this to be a joke of affection, but also a reference to one of the things we, as a culture, fear most.
What brings this to mind is something I saw at work last Sunday. I am interning at a rehab hospital. On Father's Day our aides followed the unspoken rule: Get all the men up, shaved and into their best clothes. By 10 a.m. we were flooded with families and small children, dressed for a day in the sun. One gentleman on my assignment sat in front of the big screen TV in our lounge alternately reading and watching a game of golf. A couple of times grandchildren would get in his way and he would joke with them. One of the mothers asked him if anyone would be visiting him.
"Nope." He replied, "It's just me."
"That must be so peaceful," said the mom. Her face told another story.
Bachelor, stag, dowager, spinster, crone - we have a lot of words for people who never made a family of their own. Assisted living facilities and SNFs are full of people whose husband or wife has passed. Many of these patients will do just what we fear: They will die old and alone.
I'm not here to delve into the situations that cause this to happen, or the loneliness that can be a part of the experience. I want to point out the stigma that goes along with this style of life.
"It's so sad," whispered the mom as she ushered her children out of the lounge. "He's got nobody."
I cringed; not every elderly person has hearing problems. The mother wasn't alone. I remember asking a patient on Mother's Day if her family was going to visit. What I got in return was a shrug, a stare into the middle distance, and a feeling that I should have kept my mouth shut.
Medically the very act of living alone can be considered a risk factor for depression. People who live alone are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and are more likely to be to commit acts of self-harm. Being old is another risk factor, as is being a man or a woman. We have some time now, before Thanksgiving and Christmas, the big family holidays, to consider polite ways to speak to our patients who may be going through the aging process solo.
With that patient, the one I talked to on Mother's Day, I made sure that she was last on my rotation so that I could spend a few more minutes in conversation with her. As for the man in the lounge, he wants nothing to do with me because golf is on.