Jane Brody writes in her column Personal Health in Tuesday’s NY Times Science section—I know I didn’t read it soon enough to get it in here for Tuesday—that social connections lead to longer life. This is not new information; social scientists and psychologists have documented isolation as shortening the life of widowers, for example, for many years.
What is interesting is the context in which Jane Brody writes now that her husband of 44 years has been dead for two years. She notes that during the first year, her family, extended family and longtime friends kept her busy by including her in their events and that she participated gratefully, but still found herself feeling alone, among the group. Now in the second year, the invitations are fewer as the others have gone on with their lives and expect her to go on with hers as well. Since she mastered the house care and financial chores that were her husband’s during the first year of bereavement, why was she still feeling so sad and so alone, she wonders, even among people whom she loves, and who love her?
She speaks of the need to recompose her life, although those are Mary Catherine Bateson’s words, to find new causes to believe in, people to help, new connections to forge. She notes that, using hindsight, it seems that people living nearer to their extended families grew older with more purpose and family connections. I don’t quite agree with her nostalgia for “the olden days”when generations of families lived together for economic reasons. What I see is that elders died then as the ones whose families live with them do now, still taking care of others, babysitting, cooking, cleaning, never having time for themselves or for their own interests.
Caregivers who no longer have the 36 hour day to negotiate, feel the loss of companionship before their loved one dies. Luckily I belong to a caring support group in which several of our loved ones reside in memory care units; one of us is now a widow who feels supported and cares for us. Still I struggle with bouts of sadness and loneliness, regret for the turn my life has taken as well as ongoing concern and daily visits with my loved one who seems to be more accepting of his condition at this point than I.