loneliness


My friend Rollie has died. He had an amazing life and taught me a lot. I am not the right person to describe his life and I’d decided not to describe any of his adventures here, but a quick look shows that there is really nothing online about him. So here’s a very short version of one of his typical adventures: In his mid-70s, he climbed K2. The sherpa didn’t want to let him come because he was too old, “But I was not the one who held us up… Not once.” On that trip to Nepal, he caught amoebic dysentery, which he cured himself of with a gruesome regimen involving coffee, hydrogen peroxide, bifidus, and enemas.  “That was not fun, let me tell you, but I got rid of that bug. I went back to the doctors and they said it was completely gone.”

Right now I’m thinking most about what he taught me about getting old. He was still on an intellectual and spiritual mission when I last saw him, a week before he died. (In fact, the moment I learned he’d died, I was on my way to his house with the King James Bible on an Excel file–something he’d asked me to find to help with a scheme he had for decoding the Bible.) His memory and his mind were still strong, though his body was failing. Almost a hundred years old and he would tell me to “google” stuff, like, “Oh, just google ‘swansons’–they’ve got good deals on B12.” You can continue to learn and grow for almost a hundred years. I’ve seen it in Rollie. And you can keep your body going, too, but it’s work. He would say, “Nature is basically on your side until your 70s. In your 70s, you’ve got to work at, get it down to a science. In your 80s, it’s full-time. It’s an art and a science to keep going. In your 90s, it’s between you and God.”

He’s got me thinking about isolation in old age. He had a lot of friends in the community, but he spent most of his time alone and he told me several times that the loneliness was hardest part of his life. He had no family left in the time of his life when he needed pretty constant companionship, someone to notice when he fell. I suppose there is only so much planning you can do to head yourself towards an old age full of care and companionship. There’s a lot of luck involved. But I am thinking about it. It makes a big difference

Rollie was also one of my grandfather’s best friends over the last 60-some years, and the most poignant part of a poignant funeral for me was seeing my grandfather cry. He doesn’t generally cry, and never like that, sobbing. I felt the power of that moment and realized I haven’t known anyone for 60-some years, and I don’t know what that’s like, the depth of a 60-year relationship, the kind of hole that would leave in your life. But that’s how you want it to be, right? You want to have good enough, long enough, deep enough friendships that leave you heartbroken when they die. But you also want to have a lot of other dear relationships around you to take up the slack. My grandfather has that, and I want that, too.

Thanks for everything, Rollie.

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

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It’s funny to find myself giving a presentation about getting a date, as I’ve asked exactly one person for a date and was rejected. I agreed to help with a presentation in my Sex Therapy class about clients who are lonely and want to date. This is my rough (but roughly accurate) outline for my part of the presentation, about what the research says:

Things to Know About Loneliness

It’s common. 10-25% of people are significantly lonely. Adolescents and young adults are the loneliest groups.

There are two kinds: Social and emotional—a lack of a sense of social integration, and the absence of an attachment figure. Most research is about social loneliness, and the two can get confounded. Our clients may mistake one for the other.

It is bad for us. Both social integration and attachment figures are human needs. It significantly increases morbidity and mortality, probably mediated by stress and also possibly by metabolic syndrome. Predicts 25-30% of suicidal behavior. Loneliness is a key vulnerability in sexual offending.

Things to Know About Dating

Lots of people are single. Maybe close to half.

Rejection hurts. Physically. Seriously. It may actually help to take a Tylenol. Normalize the pain and the fear of pain.

There is a lot of research and it may be good to know, for psychoed purposes:

Awareness. To get a date, other people must be aware of you. Are your clients making others aware of them? The general rule here is to stand out from the crowd in some way that does not violate social norms. Standing out in a negative way will not help.

Attraction.

Physical attractiveness is a big deal. Sorry, it just is. If it is an issue, consider a conversation with clients about grooming. Beyond that, blame the media and move on to the points below.

Appropriateness. Again, violating social norms generally will turn people off. There is also a lot of research on stuff like age, social/economic status, and race/ethnicity acting as “appropriateness” filters for affiliation, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be for clients.

Familiarity. People will like you more just because they know you. As long as you didn’t make an initial negative impression, becoming a regular will help you.

Similarity. Opposites attract is wrong. People like people who are like them. This is a good plug for meeting people at special-interest events. (Bars are an exception. Very few real relationships start in bars.)

Responsiveness. We like people who seem interested in us. Eye contact, questions, turning towards bids for attention. Check your clients for an exaggerated sense of putting themselves out there.

Approach/Affiliation. If you want someone to approach you and choose you, you need to be accessible and receptive. These are much like the awareness, familiarity, and responsiveness principles, above.