A multi-sensory banquet awaits those who dare to take this earth walk, irrespective of one’s ability or station in life. Whether we encounter a fragrant, noxious or a bland path could depend upon the fellow who accompanies us, the fellow we accompany or how well we partner ourselves.
“It is a couples’ world.” This is the popular understanding among residents in today’s senior living campuses. However, emerging statistics prove otherwise. Recent Pew studies and others have revealed that over a third of older adults in the United States live alone. That amounts to nearly 15 million people. In contrast to the U.S. numbers, 16% of older adults are living alone in 130 countries where multi-generational households are more common.
Looking back to 1900, the amount of people who lived alone over the age of 65 was only 6%. Improved life expectancy and economic security have driven up the numbers. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, 42% of the aging nation’s population over 65 lives alone and there will be many more in the coming years. Furthermore, 69% of those living alone are women. The statistics for aging single men have also risen. For instance, the number of men living alone between 1970 and 2012 doubled. That’s a lot of uncoupled people traveling solo at the horizon of life.
The tacit acceptance of this “couples’ world” idea can place those who are not part of a pair at a marked disadvantage in social situations. As a result, a bifurcated environment of exclusion is established, amplifying feelings of isolation which may already exist for single people.
While gathering the recent data, reviewing the social perceptions and experiences of aging singles, the ripple effects of isolation became apparent. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has inflamed the “I” in isolation to such an extent that other “I” words and concepts seem to radiate from it. Therefore, I thought it would be beneficial to explore this phenomenon of “I’s” in reference to aging singles.
Over the past two years, some primary relationships have fared better than others. Internal misalignments, along with the stresses caused by the pandemic, have maxed out previously stable reserves. This secondary pandemic of relational conflict has contributed to the severing of couples’ ties and the proliferation of new singles.
Additionally, the death of a life partner because of COVID, or other health events, has often resulted in undesirable and life-altering situations. People who are suddenly single are doing things they never needed to do before. They are learning new things and acquiring new skills, all frequently under the
weight of grief.
Alone happens and it continues due to chronic illness, death, separation, divorce, lack of opportunities or personal choice.
The Hebrew word for alone is badad. We see this word in several places, initially in proximity to lo tov, not good. Genesis 2:18 introduces us to God saying that it is not good for a person to be alone. Later, Yitro tells Moses that it is not good for him to lead (the people) alone. (Ex.18:17)
Rabbi Harold Kushner has shared a meaningful teaching that Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with, illustrating the importance of interpersonal and communal bonds. “I”, in this case, stands for interdependence.
In addition to attachments with others, Jewish tradition encourages everyone to be true to themselves. The “I” in independence can reflect a person’s desire and ability to self-actualize. This, too, is important. We are stronger and healthier when we do not allow others to define us and when we align with our life’s purpose(s). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l explained that a person should be prepared to stand alone, to be courageous, to demonstrate moral strength, as needed. For those who are single, embracing this period of independence can be empowering.
Pirkei Avot 1:14 presents the famous quote from Hillel that links independence to interdependence. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Indeed, unique conditions of the pandemic have illuminated multiple “I’s” for our consideration, directed at both self and others, in the present tense.
However, proper scrutiny needs to address the “I” in indifference. This “I” can manifest exclusion. During pastoral counseling sessions, I have witnessed the emotional pain caused by forms of rejection. Singles have described their well-meaning attempts to join gatherings where couples dominate. Some instances involved people they have known for a long time, while others corresponded to more recent acquaintances. They reported dashed hopes and hurt feelings when they were rebuffed simply because they were not part of a couple. The message they received was, “You don’t belong here (anymore).” Such encounters can be startling and harmful for the single person seeking to belong or genuinely trying to maintain long-standing friendships.
John Cacioppo is a University of Chicago professor who studies the health risks of loneliness. He has observed that loneliness affects 40% of older adults. The health risks associated with loneliness are significant, demonstrably worse than air pollution or obesity. Loneliness generates stress and can increase blood pressure, as well as unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, neglecting physical activity and medical care. Risks for cognitive decline also increase. For example, studies have shown that the frequency of Alzheimer’s disease doubles in lonely adults.
Regardless of the cause, lifestyle changes can be even more challenging for those over 65 with additional vulnerabilities. LBGTQ+ community members, ages 65-79, were studied for a 2011 collaborative report published by the LBGT Aging Center. Researchers found that 53% identified feelings of loneliness and isolation. 59% of the participants expressed that they
A groundbreaking article last year by Eric Emerson, Ph.D., Nicola Fortune, Ph.D. and Roger Stancliffe, Ph.D., noted that people with disabilities experienced perceived low social support and social isolation at notably higher rates than those without disabilities. Consider that 46% of people 60 and above have disabilities of some kind. Combine that with the complications of a pandemic and the trend of older adults living alone. We need to be simultaneously concerned and resourceful.
At Sun Health Communities, we are responding to the needs of diverse populations by establishing programs, providing supports and resources. Progress was made at a recent workshop that I facilitated for singles when we identified several consequential topics requiring action. We learned that the group’s paramount concerns matched the latest research: mitigating isolation and loneliness, followed by a need for inclusion. Participants were energized by the prospects of identifying common problems and creating viable solutions. Here, the “I” in inspiration is leading to the “I” of innovations.
Yet, alone happens. It happens all the time. Not only throughout the pandemic, but during holidays and all kinds of anniversaries, when it can be especially difficult to be separated from others. News flash: this is not a “couples’ world.” This is not a “singles’ world.” This is the world that The Holy One of Blessing created for all of us. We are tasked not only to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Lev 19:34, 25:35), but for those who are alone for all sorts of reasons, those who feel lonely and those who are unable to express what they need to improve their situation.
Where does the “I” in COVID go? Often, it migrates into the isolation of singles. This expanding demographic of people over the age of 65 features many who find themselves alone and on the fringes of activities. They deserve to be seen, heard, valued and included. Yes. Alone happens. However, the “I” in isolation has already occurred too many times. Seeing the “I” in isolation means paying attention to the needs of our fellow, as well as our own needs and taking decisive action to assure that no branch of the human tree is cut off from the nourishing trunk of community.
Kol Yisrael araveim zeh la-zeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. (and all of God’s Creation).
A banquet of connections awaits our discovery, so let’s put the “I” into inspiration and inclusion, exercising the revitalization of a most important mitzvah. Then let’s see how wonderful this new year can be. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder serves as the rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities. This is the first of two essays by Rabbi Snyder on this topic.