Are you lonely? Is loneliness just an occasional visitor in your life, or a constant companion? Do you feel lonely only when you’re alone, or do you find yourself saddled with this unwelcome guest even in the midst of familiar company?
Does loneliness get better or worse as we grow older?
The premise of this blog, Joyous Paradox, is that sometimes healing comes from taking a brave and closer look at the sources of our suffering. Surely loneliness is one of the most pervasive sources of pain that we know.
“I’m used to putting up this wall of everything’s O.K., everything will be all right,” says Martin Bayne, an advocate for elders who was interviewed recently about his experiences in an assisted living facility. Bayne was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease in the 1990s. “But deep down, it’s not all right,” he tells journalist Judith Graham. “This nightmare of depression and anxiety hunts me down every day like a criminal. And it’s not just me — it’s everyone around me, but no one wants to speak about how much pain they’re in. How lonely they feel. How forgotten they’ve become to the world around them.”
“What can be done?” Graham asks.
“Sometimes just a hand on someone’s shoulder is all it takes,” Bayne replies. “Sometimes picking up a fork that someone drops in the dining room… I sneak in touches whenever I can. I call them sneak attacks. I just go over and touch someone’s hand.”
Sometimes just a hand is all it takes. I remember working in an assisted living facility several years ago and seeing one of my colleagues give a manicure to a resident. There they were, a young woman from Brazil and an old woman from Massachusetts, hand in hand, absorbed in watching the flow of hot pink pigment from brush to nail.
When I visit one of my elder-care clients, I greet them with a hug or a hand on the shoulder. I say goodbye the same way.
“Close your eyes and remember the last time someone held your hand for a while,” suggests nurse Sheryl M. Ness in an article on the Mayo Clinic’s Living with Cancer blog. “Remember the warmth of their skin and how it instantly made you relax? Human touch is powerful.” Neff credits a popular hand massage program for chemotherapy patients with helping participants to relax and focus on moment-to-moment feelings of comfort and connection.
From the pen of former poet laureate W. S. Merwin comes a poem about the loss of a beloved person:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
~ W. S. Merwin
Merwin was a young man when he wrote this poem, but I think it is exquisitely pertinent to the bereavements that we experience as we grow older and the companions of our youth step off the path.
May the power of human touch bring ease and comfort to all of us who live with loneliness.