By Bhakti Larry Hough
“If I’ve done anything to them, I wish I knew what it was so I could straighten it out,” Luther said to me with a look of sadness in his eyes.
A local man who asked that I use only his middle name to protect his identity, Luther was explaining that he has four children and seldom sees three of them. Ironically, the one that he sees most lives farthest away from him. The other three live within a 35-mile radius of his home. While he hasn’t been totally abandoned by his children, as an 84-year-old widower who lives alone and isn’t able to drive anymore, he would like to see and spend time with his two sons and two daughters more often. His son that lives in Charlotte drives down every two weeks and spends a day or two with him. Another son and daughter come to visit about once a month on average and call about every two weeks. He seldom sees the second daughter. “She calls every now and then, or I’ll call her,” he said. “But I haven’t seen her in about three months.” She lives about a 30-minute drive from his house.
Occasionally, one of the children will pick him up for a brief stay at their homes. The most recent visit was to his son’s home for Christmas Eve and Christmas. “I really enjoyed that,” Luther said. “I felt loved.”
Not able to get around much anymore due to declining health and having lost most of his close friends and associates to death or immobility due to their own poor health, Luther spends a lot of time alone. Sometimes, neighbors, other family members and a local minister will drop in to check on him. But those visits aren’t regular and are usually of short duration, he said. His only living sister, who is 90, lives in Richmond, Va. He sees her once a year. He occupies his time reading his Bible, going to church when he feels like it, watching sports and sitcoms on television and listening to gospel music on the radio. Other times, he just sleeps and sits on his porch, weather permitting, and watches cars pass on the road.
“I get lonely a lot of times,” he said. “The days can be long and that’s a lot of time to fill when you’re in the house most of the time and can’t go anywhere. I think if I could see more of the children and my grandchildren (he has 10), I would be alright. But it seems like some of them have just thrown me away. I reckon they figure they got their own lives to live and are just too busy to worry with the old man.”
Luther said sometimes nearly a week may pass before he has a visitor and a couple of days may pass before the phone rings. “But I try to do my part. I’ll pick up the phone and call somebody, but sometimes I don’t because I feel like people don’t want to be bothered. But I’ll call and just say, ‘I just called to see how you’re doing’ and hang up. When I try to talk to the children about coming by more often, they seem to get upset.”
Luther is not alone in his loneliness (pardon the pun). The U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost 25 percent of men and 46 percent of women over 75 years old live alone. Research indicates that a large percentage of those elders experience loneliness on a regular basis, and some even experience social isolation. If the loneliness itself isn’t bad enough, for many it has health and mortality consequences:
• According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older.
• Regardless of the facts of a person’s isolation, seniors who feel lonely and isolated are more likely to report also having poor physical and/or mental health, according to a study by the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.
• Numerous studies have shown that feeling lonely is associated more symptoms of depression in both middle-aged and older adults.
Not all senior citizens experience loneliness or social isolation. Still, it is disturbing that we live in a society where we regularly leave so many of our elders to live out their winter years in loneliness. It’s especially disturbing when adult children neglect and/or abandon their parents, leaving others to pick up their slack. Distance and work schedules are sometimes the culprits. But too often, the reason children don’t visit their parents is simply indifference -- a lack of caring. Knowing that loneliness and social isolation can lead to shortened and sicker lives and depression among our elders and being indifferent about it is a sad commentary on who we are as a nation. Anybody at any age can experience loneliness and social isolation, but it’s particularly sad when one is old and lonely.
“I’m a very busy person with a family and lot of responsibility and Mom understands that,” an acquaintance told me in explaining why he visits his mother only once every couple of months, though he lives an hour’s drive away from her house.
“Do you not care to visit her more often and spend more time with her?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “But I’m doing the best I can.”
Who am I to judge? Just because I visit my mother every other day most weeks and sometimes two or three days in a row doesn’t mean that’s appropriate or necessary for other parents and children. After all, I live only 15 minutes away from my mother, am self-employed, and have considerable work scheduling flexibility. When my work requires that I be out of town for a week or two, I call my mother daily. But that’s just me; I’m an old softie and can’t bear the thought of her being alone and lonely as she ages. Aging brings all sorts of physical and emotional challenges. It seems cruel to me when an elderly person also has to endure loneliness, especially when they have children or other relatives who don’t visit often.
Sometimes, however, the situation is complex; not all elderly persons are sweet and inviting founts of wisdom. Some of them can be difficult and behave in ways that turn people away -- often due to senility or dementia. For instance, David R. told me that he and his mother have always had a strained relationship, and that the older she gets (she is now 80), the more difficult she becomes. “I’d spend more time with Mama if she wasn’t so mean,” he said. “Every time I go by, a criticism is the first thing out of her mouth. If it’s not my locks (dreadlocks), it’s my clothes,” he said.
“‘Boy,’ and I’m 41 years old, ‘when you gonna get a haircut and start dressing like somebody,’ she’ll say. And then when I leave, it’s like, ‘What you came for, a match? And I guess I’ll see you next year.’ I ain’t trying to hear all that.”
While I can appreciate David’s concerns, adult children no doubt have to be -- or learn to be -- tolerant of some of their aging parents’ eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, especially those who may be suffering from some degree of senility or dementia. Some will be stubborn and unpleasant. But love, compassion and understanding -- and awareness of the fact that if we’re lucky, we’ll get old, too -- require that we take care of our elders so that they may live out their lives with dignity and a quality of life that they deserve.
(Contributing columnist Bhakti Larry Hough is a resident of Lee County and president of NewWorld Arts, an arts presenting and public relations organization. He is an award-winning journalist who has been a staff writer for a number of newspapers. Hough is also a former chairman of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission.)