Alone at Last!

To start with, let me admit that I, personally, don’t live alone so I can’t write as an expert on the subject! The ideas expressed here today have been triggered by observation, plus comments and thoughts conveyed to me by others who do live alone. They are the experts, so take all I say with a grain of salt. But lend me your ear anyway for a while, and let’s see what we can make of this condition that is common to many.

Well, first off, there are those who live alone by choice. Old Howard Hughes was perhaps the archetype. “http://www.biography.com/people/howard-hughes-9346282. It has been said he suffered from an obsessive/compulsive attitude and used drugs. There are plenty of us who have found ourselves trapped in a downward spiral because of stresses brought on by business, breakup of relationships, financial problems, drugs or just plain old over-drinking. Sometimes, staying down in the pit is just a case of having another drink or a shot of something to forget it all.

You don’t quite know how things got so bad, but one day you wake up to the fact that you’ve lost it! It’s not necessarily a simple case of, “Okay, let’s have a shower and spruce up a bit, and get on with life!” Sometimes it’s a case of things having gone downhill for some time now, and you realize that the world has sort of moved on without you! You take another look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Maybe we’ve passed the point of no-return!” Well, then that calls for another drink right? Howard Hughes, a billionaire, dropped to the point apparently where his looks and personal hygiene were a shock to anyone lucky (or should that be “unlucky”) enough to see him.   That can happen to any of us, whether we choose to accept to believe it or not. Following in another man’s footsteps is not always difficult.

But living alone may not always be a matter of choice. Sometimes it is thrust upon us through no fault of our own. It can happen to people at the opposite end of the financial spectrum to Howard Hughes. It can happen to those left destitute in this world with no family, no friends, no funds and no hope. Oh sure, they learn to cope – at least many do, albeit they usually become hardened in the process. They survive, and for them loneliness is submerged in a world of strangers on the street. “It’s just the ways things are!” and they pass their loneliness off with a shrug. The only real hope of escape for seniors like these is the arrival of some knight in shining armour, a la Richard Gere. But those saviours are few and far between. Even religious saviours are overworked, and have gigantic backlogs.

Then we come to plight of many seniors whose spouse has passed on, and they are left to face the world on their own. (I have even heard some survivors express anger that the lost spouse has left them alone, as if the departure was a matter of choice!) Some are lucky enough to be financially independent, and independent enough not to be overcome by their loneliness. Some even wallow in their financial independence, filling their days meeting other people in clubs, or meeting casual or even permanent partners on cruises, etc. We probably don’t have to worry too much about them. They are too busy and having too good a time to be lonely.

But there is a larger group of seniors who do live alone in moderate comfort, perhaps, but are still lonely. When that front door closes behind them, they walk into a home where the silence is broken only by any sound they themselves instigate. For many, it means turning on the radio or television just so they can sense other people around; the chattering in the background that lets you know you are not really, completely alone. Just knowing there are other people out there is reassuring. When the radio or the television is turned on, all sorts of exciting and young people come right in and sit with you. That’s a step forward!

It’s just not the same, however, as having real people around. You know the times I mean; those times when you just can’t open that jar because the lid is on too tight! Or you need to get to the store, but there is no car to take you there. Walks up and down stairs can become as dangerous to one’s well-being as a mountaineer’s fall on Everest. In either case, swift help may be critical. Daytimes are not so bad usually, because if the weather is reasonable, you may be able to stick you head out of the door and ask a neighbour for help, or phone someone. It’s nighttime’s that are the worst, when it’s too late to go wandering outside, or too late to call anyone. After 10pm at night, you are on your own, really on your own – and that is the worst time of all. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could sleep soundly through the night, but many seniors can’t do that. Their nights are a long, lonely period when insomnia or aches and pains make sleep impossible, or patchy at best.

One lady I knew, who suffered from the terminal illness, Motor Neuron Disease, described to me the terrible nights she experienced because of choking fits, nightmares and the aches and pains that go with that ailment. Because her time zone was six hours ahead of mine, and because I generally stayed up late anyway, I suggested she call me when these nighttime problems bothered her. She told me it was a great comfort just knowing that she could Skype me and have a text conversation. (She had already lost the ability to eat, drink or talk months before her sister and brother-in-law suggested I correspond with her.) So, having someone to talk to can help while away the hours and help a lonely person get back to sleep.

For seniors, being active on the Internet need not be just writing and reading emails. Skype is a very handy and free way of staying in touch with others, and YouTube often has a better selection of free videos and movies than you find on the “not so modern” TV movie channels. A pet is a wonderful companion, provided you are in good enough shape to take care of it. They are so very faithful and loving, but you have to care of their needs as well as your own, which includes feeding, exercising, nursing when they get sick, etc. So don’t take one on unless you can handle that. If you can’t, don’t be above getting yourself one of those large cuddly stuffed animals. They can be great to cuddle up to on those long cold nights next winter, and they’ll never argue with you.

There are other seniors, too, that have an even tougher time of it; those with serious health limitations and those who depend solely on government assistance to survive. We can help by offering them the friendship and support that we learned from Lord Baden-Powell as a Boy Scout or a Girl Guide, or from our religious teachings. Compassion is a great thing, and there is a lot of truth in the saying, “It is better to give than receive!” Don’t let the pressure of present-day living push courtesy and chivalry into the background. Without them, we are barbaric. Seniors can help other seniors too!

Personally, I have no problem falling asleep. But everyone is different. My own prescription is to follow what my body tells me. If I’m tired at two in the afternoon – even though it was 10am before I got up, I’ll go take a nap. These naps usually last from 2 – 4 hours, with the average somewhere around three. At night, I spend a lot of time at the computer and keep at it until I know I’m really tired. Consequently, as a general rule, I am asleep with ten minutes of hitting the pillow. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I usually have a snack before I hit the sack. (The vet once told me to ensure I never sent Sammy, my little dog, to bed hungry. I assured him I would never do that – and I got to thinking it was also good advice for an old dog like me!) If I ever have to get up to go to the bathroom I don’t turn the light on by my bedside; it might hinder me dropping off again. Of course, I prefer enough subdued light to find my way, but that is all! I really don’t want to wake up unnecessarily. If I’m “under”, I want to stay under. No earphones, no radio on all night and the curtains drawn. Incidentally, the only time I leave the curtains WIDE open is on the eve of putting out the garbage. I don’t need an alarm clock to get up around dawn. As soon as those rays start to lighten the sky just a bit, I seem to notice. It is quite remarkable, really, because at all other times I think I sleep soundly. Maybe it’s the subconscious at work. In fact, once I have put the garbage out to the curb, I usually go right back to bed. BUT, I close the curtains first and, sure enough off I go, right back into never-never land.

Do I have a problem getting to sleep? Never! I drift off to sleep deliberately thinking about some specific problem or subject. If, on the odd occasion that doesn’t work, I have a gazillion sheep that need counting. Luckily, however, I have not managed to reach the number twenty so far! I keep my eyes shut, and after a turn this way and one that way, I’m gone. Maybe I should get a sheepdog though, just in case! Now’s there a specific question I can use to get off to sleep tonight!

Alone at last! Oh, how often have we said that with a sigh of relief?   But like everything else, there can be another side to being alone at last. As a senior, we are probably already well aware of that. But we also need to realize that there are other seniors around us less fortunate, who can use a helping hand…from us! There are professionals who will help; Rehab Results is an example.

I offer you no reward in the after-life, but your awareness as a senior of how to help yourself AND how to help other less fortunate seniors will bring you greater self-satisfaction in this one.

Gerry Wood, Aug 14, 2015