At the Greenwood Senior Center in Seattle, about two dozen older adults are gathered around a large table.
There’s homemade bread being passed around, and some handouts related to today’s discussion. The people in this group are mostly over age 65. Some are widowed, some are divorced, and some have never married. All live alone.
Carin Mack, a geriatric social worker, starts the conversation. The topic: loneliness and isolation.
The Living Alone group, as it’s called, meets twice a month. The topic today is loneliness and isolation. Julia Robinson knows about this first hand.
“Anytime you have a medical procedure the issue of living alone crops up,” Robinson says. “You’re supposed to have someone stay with you the first night and all that nonsense. What I found is the phone works well if you keep it charged.”
It’s not just the practical challenges of living solo that the group wanted to talk about. There are emotional ones, too, like how to deal with loneliness.
Beatrice Dolf says she has phone numbers of friends in her book that she hadn’t called in ages.
“I think the tendency is not to call somebody unless we have something to talk about,” Dolf says.
She learned it pays to take the first step and reaching out to them.
“I found it takes loneliness away,” she says. “I do this frequently on the weekend, because the weekend is the time I feel it would be fun to do something, and I just call these people even if I haven’t seen them for years.”
The group starts sharing ideas on how to spend their free time and ways to meet people.
Mack, the social worker, started the Living Alone group 15 years ago. It was a small group, initially, but over the years, more people started coming.
“People have lost that sense of community,” she says.
Communities and activities give people reason to get out of the house. Mack says they anchor our lives. But for many older adults, there aren’t many anchors left.
“The family might be gone, or they’re too busy,” Mack says. “They’re not in the workplace anymore; they haven’t developed maybe some kind of a passion either for community service or quilting or anything that you can think of that will be an anchor. And I think it definitely makes them vulnerable.”
Mack says older adults living in isolation are vulnerable to elder abuse. It puts them at risk for cognitive decline or depression, which could lead to other medical problems requiring doctor visits or hospitalization.
Public health officials are taking note. In Washington, elderly men have the highest suicide rate. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression is a common problem among older adults, but it’s not a normal part of aging.
Back at the Living Alone meeting, the group talks about pets that keep them company. But if that’s not an option, James Hyde offered this suggestion: houseplants. Hyde says his plants are like buddies. The group chuckles.
“I know it’s strange,” he says, “but I don’t know much about plants other than I love them.”
Hyde says his ex-wife and a good friend coach him on how to care for the plants. So far, he says, it’s working. “I talk to them and they’re doing super well! When I see a new sprout, I’m like, wow! They keep me company.”
Someone then mentions she has a bunch of baby jade plants that are rooting. Would anybody like some? Immediately, hands went up.
After the meeting, a few people linger to chat. Rose Hublitz is 64 and new to the group. Her friend suggested that she come to the senior center.
“I tend to self-isolate,” Hublitz says, “and I’m looking for a place to meet and chat with people.”
Hublitz says there are times when she wants to be alone, but other times, being alone hits her harder.
“It’s evenings for me, where you want to share the day’s events with someone and there’s no one there,” she says.
Thinking back to the discussion, she chuckles. “I am going to get a plant. I have no plants, and I am going to get one.”
Hublitz says coming to the meetings has helped her. She felt welcomed.