Dear Friends for Life:
The problem of loneliness among the elderly is a growing problem around the world. In Britain and the United States, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone. In the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. In Japan where I work, the number of elderly people aged 65 or older accounts for 26.7 percent of the 127.11 million total population. China, India, Singapore, South Korea and other countries are facing similar problems.
Loneliness was not a major concern in the past because families took care of ageing parents. Reflecting this problem of loneliness in other countries today, Japan has more than 6 million Japanese people who live alone and do not have family living nearby. This number is expected to increase to 7.6 million over the next 20 years.
Are we aware of this problem? Does society care? One writer in Japan recommends, “Old people are growing more and more selfish. Human beings have an obligation to die at a suitable time.” Another states, “The only hope is to throw our parents away.” In early history, Japanese abandoned their aged parents to starve on mountaintops. In modern history, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides are replacing this as acceptable.
Who does this include? Those terminally-ill? Dementia? Cancer? At a certain level of physical deterioration? At what point does life become not worth living? Who makes these “suitable time” decisions?
Granted there are medical problems involved, both physical and mental. The psychological ones probably cause the deepest pain for the elderly. Shocking statistics reveal that a large number of elderly (in the millions) go as long as one or even two months without talking to anyone, especially in big cities like New York, Tokyo and London.
Do we care? Yes, I believe we do. A survey shows that 65% of people believe we should do more. What can we do? Here are a few new suggestions:
1. “Teach older people new technologies.” A family stays in touch through texting but may unintentionally leave out older folks who don’t text.
2. “Reach out to them”. Whether family, neighbour or even a stranger, visit them, offer them a ride for shopping, include them in social activities, use your imagination.
3. “Teach elderly to use Skype.” This is inexpensive and ease to use for those who live far away.
4. “Communication.” Strengthen bonds between generations – young and old. Be interested in them. Retired people agree that communication destroys loneliness.
Pope Francis also spoke of the duty of honouring the elderly, which he associated with the biblical commandment to honour one’s parents. On the contrary, he said, the Bible has a stern warning for those who neglect or mistreat their parents. This especially applies today when parents, “having become older and less useful, are marginalized to the point of abandonment.”
The Pope explained that “to honour” can be understood in our day “as the duty to have extreme respect and to take care of those who, because of their physical or social condition, could be left to die, or ‘made to die’. A society where the elderly are discarded carries within it the virus of death.”
To youth the Pope concludes, “Where the elderly are not honoured, there is no future for the young”.
Further reading: Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness
Jerry Novotny, OMI