“We’re pretty old and sick here. But you come here and see us as the kind of people who are worthy to be participants in music and singing. Thank you for including us. It means so much.”
— A senior who received the gift of song at Cable Car Caroling 2015
Aging isn’t just a biological process — it’s also very much a cultural one. The ways in which societies around the world treat their elderly are vast and varied.
In the traditional villages of Fiji, for example, when people grow old, family and friends care for them at home until their dying days. In some cultures, children are so devoted that when their aging parents lose their teeth the children pre-chew their food.
In comparison, the value that our society places on usefulness plays a big part in determining the fate of our older adults.
In the United States, a “cult of youth” and emphasis on the virtues of independence, individualism, and self-reliance make life hard for many older adults as they inevitably lose some of these traits. Numerous physical, psychological, and social role changes challenge their sense of self and capacity for happiness as they age.
Our American work ethic dictates that if you’re no longer working, you’ve lost the main value that society places upon you. Retirement often means losing social relationships, which, coupled with our society’s high mobility, leaves many older adults an unbearable distance away from their loved ones.
Perhaps no other age group feels the keen sting of loneliness more acutely during the holiday season than seniors. It’s very human to feel that holidays should be happy times, with generations of traditions coming to the forefront. For most, the holidays are a time to gather with friends and family, celebrate, reflect on the past, and plan for the future. Many seniors, however, don’t look forward to the holiday season with that same anticipation.
The phenomenon is not restricted to the United States. This video about elder loneliness in the UK has been circling around the internet with 32,835 shares on Facebook.
In the UK, the department store John Lewis launched an ad campaign to drive home the point that no one should be lonely during the holidays. It has received 22 million hits on YouTube.
Germany’s supermarket chain Edeka rivaled the UK advertisement with another ad that illustrates the desperation of older adults who are lonely. In it, an older man fakes his own death to ensure that his children will come home for Christmas. The ad, which has more than 43 million views on YouTube, has sparked discussions of elderly loneliness and shed light on its severe health consequences.
Loneliness and social isolation have often been used to characterize the social world of older people and as an indicator of their quality of life. While these campaigns help drive attention to the plight of lonely seniors, the reality is that loneliness among the elderly has been under-addressed. The size of our older population is large and growing due to advances in healthcare and life expectancy, meaning the challenges of loneliness and social isolation will only persist.
The Institute on Aging recognizes that the holidays can be a difficult time for many seniors. People get busy during the holidays, and many might not realize that there are older adults in their communities who are lonely and disconnected from the spirit of the season. That’s one of the reasons why, over 30 years ago, we launched Cable Car Caroling — an annual event that brings Christmas carolers, gifts, and holiday cheer to the doorsteps of seniors who may otherwise be very lonely.
“In San Francisco, more than 31% of seniors live alone, and 10% experience an hour or less of social contact per week. More than half never receive a visitor,” said Dr. Patrick Arbore, Founder of the Friendship Line, a 24-hour suicide prevention phone line for older adults. “[Cable Car Caroling] not only brings holiday cheer to homebound seniors during the darkest days of winter, the money it raises allows us to spend more time with more seniors throughout the year.” This year, the event drew a sold-out crowd and support from all corners of the community.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the deleterious impact of loneliness. These studies have concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to decline and die prematurely. The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking, and the same study found that loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.
The Institute on Aging is one of the few social service agencies that addresses this issue in a comprehensive way. However, the demand in the Bay Area continues to outpace capacity, so this year we launched a crowdfunding campaign to extend our reach and holiday cheer to seniors year-round. If you’d like to make a help this important effort to ease senior loneliness in the Bay Area, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution by the end of this year.
Psychologist Erik Erickson argued that the Western fear of aging keeps us from living full lives. The perceived value of the elderly is an important factor in determining whether seniors are respected or not. Our society is failing to value and harness older people’s skills, knowledge and experience. But our community doesn’t have to. Together, we can help alleviate senior loneliness. Human dignity, after all, has no expiration date.
Senior loneliness is a serious problem that affects many of the older adults in our community and around the world. You can help ease senior loneliness in San Francisco by making a tax-deductible contribution to our crowdfunding campaign by the end of this year — the campaign ends December 31! Give the gift of caring to San Francisco’s elderly by making a gift to IOA this holiday season.
Institute on Aging is a San Francisco, CA-based 501(c)(c) non-profit dedicated to preserving the dignity, independence, and well-being of aging adults and people living with disabilities. Gifts made to IOA are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by the law.