Studies regularly point out that loneliness can be deadlier than obesity or smoking, especially in your old age. Just do a search, and you’ll find many references. Clearly, friendships and other relationships nurture us in ways that are more than merely emotional. Whilst it is sad enough that elderly folks are lonely (or that anyone is lonely, to be honest), it is beyond sad that their loneliness may shorten their lives and bring them physical ailments that limit their lives, and isolate them even further.
It made me think about my life. Right now, I’m spending weeks stuck inside, on my own. My husband is working hard and of course has been looking after his parents over the last few weeks. I joked – sort of – to him that it was okay, I clearly knew that I was ranked at least third in his life, behind his parents and work, right now at least. My friends were busy at work, or travelling, or busy with kids during school holidays. So I’ve been feeling a bit lonely really. I know that this will pass, though, and I’m counting the days till I will more easily be able to navigate the steep driveway and road to my car, and will once again get the freedom to travel independently and spend time with other people!
My old age might be different, though. We don’t have children, so won’t have them popping in to visit – now or when I’m old. (I’m presuming I’ll be lucky enough to grow old, of course, which is not guaranteed at all!) I look at my in-laws, and whilst I’m glad that they still have each other against the odds, I am sad that they don’t really have friends, and increasingly, only have my husband and me. I think that’s a danger of being part of a couple, whether or not you have children. It is easy to focus inwards, rather than to nurture outside relationships as well. It is also easy to assume that your children will be there for you, that they’re your insurance against loneliness when the evidence is that this often isn’t the case. And by the time you’ve lost some of your independence, it’s too late to build that support network you didn’t realise you needed.
Ultimately, I realise that in preparing for my old age, I’m going to have to build friendships and other relationships. More relationships than I currently have, probably. There are many ways to do this, of course. But most importantly, I think simply preparing for my old age, being aware of the fact that I have to create and nurture my relationships, rather than rely on blood or familial relationships, will hopefully help ensure that I won’t be lonely. Internet relationships are good, but they can’t pop in when you’re hungry for the sound of another voice, for the feel of someone’s hand on your shoulder, or need practical help.
Which is why I’m feeling grateful for my friends this week, popping in with ANZAC biscuits, or staying over last night – as Peony did – to chat (or perhaps, listen to me rant), and cook me a delicious pumpkin risotto. I don’t take these relationships for granted, and I hope I never will.