In the past, man’s physical environment—his home, for instance—was a towering health hazard. During recent decades, however, the dangers caused by physical environment have been lessened. Better sanitation, safer water, and a reduction in vermin in the home have improved man’s environment, bolstered his health, and extended his life. As a result, in many parts of the world, man is now able to go a longer distance. Yet, lowering this hurdle involves more than installing indoor plumbing. It also calls for maintaining a healthy social and religious environment.
Your social environment is made up of people—the ones with whom you live, work, eat, worship, and play. Your physical environment improves when you have access to safe water; similarly, your social environment may improve when you have access to valued companions, to name one prime factor. Being able to share your joys and sorrows, dreams and frustrations, with other people lowers the height of the environmental hurdle and helps you to run a longer course.
The reverse, however, is also true. A lack of companionship may cause loneliness and social death. You tend to wither if you exist without receiving expressions of care from the people around you. One woman living in a home for the elderly wrote to an acquaintance: “I am 82 years old and I have been here at the home for 16 long years. They treat us well, but the loneliness is sometimes hard to bear.” Sadly, this woman’s condition is typical of that of many older ones, especially in the Western world. They often live in a social environment that tolerates but hardly appreciates them. As a consequence, “loneliness is one of the major conditions that constantly threaten the well-being of the elderly in the developed world,” says James Calleja, of the International Institute on Ageing.
True, you may not be able to remove the circumstances that make you vulnerable to loneliness—such as forced retirement, declining mobility, the loss of long-time friends, or the death of a spouse—but you can still take some steps to lower this hurdle to a manageable height. For starters, keep in mind that feeling lonely is not caused by old age; some young people feel lonely as well. Being old is not the cause of the problem—being socially isolated is. What can you do to fight slipping into isolation?
“Make it pleasant for people to be with you,” advises an older widow. “Few people enjoy associating with a grouchy person. You need to put forth the effort to be cheerful. That takes energy, it’s true, but the energy you invest gives returns. Kindness begets kindness.” She adds: “To make sure that I have some topics of conversation in common with the people I meet, young or old, I try to keep up with the present by reading informative magazines and following the news.”
Here are some other suggestions: Learn to be interested in what other people like. Ask questions. To the extent possible, be generous. If you lack material goods, you can give of yourself; there is happiness in giving. Write letters. Take up a hobby. Accept invitations to visit other people or to go out with them. Keep your home cheerful and inviting for visitors. Reach out to people in need and offer help.
A growing body of evidence suggests that religious activities help older people to find “meaningfulness and significance in life” and to experience “happiness,” “a sense of usefulness,” “greater life satisfaction,” and “a sense of community and well-being.” Why? The book Later Life—The Realities of Aging explains: “Religious faith provides people with a philosophy of life as well as a series of attitudes, values, and beliefs that help them interpret and understand the world around them.” In addition, religious activities bring older people in contact with other people and thus “reduce the possibility of social isolation and loneliness.”