On Living Alone

In recent weeks mariner has been living alone, a solitary human, a shut-in. During the holiday season his wife has been off visiting their far-flung children for weeks at a time. This is an opportunity for mariner to study the circumstances that confront those who live alone – especially late in life.

It is true that being alone induces depression. It is true that electronic entertainment does not require a conscious, focused brain. It is true that mental and physical disabilities inevitably affect brain function.

To oversimplify, there is an immense force that pushes down on a person living in solitude; gumption quickly will disappear, the energy and eventually the ability to focus on existential experiences is drained from the body. The recliner, television and simple meals become 24 hour diversions. An individual must be able to resist this downward pressure. Survival depends on two things: staying busy in some manner, whether simple chores, hobby interests or leaving the house. The second thing is social interaction. Being old and infirm makes it doubly hard to engage in these activities but the alternative is a quietly dying brain and increased immobility.

Some activities that mariner pursued:

֎ Catch the daily news headlines then turn off the television until evening. Set the smartphone aside. Dress for the weather and go outside. Walk. Arrange visits with neighbors. Lounge in a diner where other loners gather. Tend the gardens. Schedule medical appointments. Even better, find ways to help others. This will be hard to do at first – stick with it.

֎ Make it a point to have several hobbies that pass time each day: Read, engage in hand crafts, write a daily diary, try a new recipe, clear out years of junk in storage areas, go shopping for a new hat. Paint something; artwork or walls – it doesn’t matter. Buy a new piece of furniture.

֎ Remember the euphemism “job jar”? It is an endless collection of things that need to be done but, in fact, would never get done. Living in solitude is a great time to drain the job jar. Making a list helps with getting started. Be careful of listing major, complicated jobs – stay focused on day-to-day tasks.

The hard part is to ‘get up and do it!’ Along with sitting in the recliner, one can muse about doing something – maybe tomorrow. . . a false sense of accomplishment.

If one is able to generate the activity mentioned, they genuinely will be tired at the end of the day and they will have exercised mind and body – and they will avoid the immense force that otherwise would diminish their life.

The above lists seem to imply high energy and achievement but that is not the case. The pace is leisurely but steady; the trick is to do things that require the mind to keep up with what you are doing.

֎ But there is a more important activity. Humans are a tribal species. Many sociological studies have shown that humans are an extended family creature. Modern economics has created the nuclear family – husband, wife, and a few children. This is not the normal or, frankly, the subconsciously desired life. If one is fortunate enough to have an extended family close by, take every opportunity to participate in family activities. This responsibility extends beyond the person living alone to every member of the family.

Mariner can speak from experience. Until he was nine years old, he had many aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of his family. The maternal side was a twenty-minute walk away and the fraternal side was a half-hour away by commuter train! Virtually every holiday included some kind of gathering and birthdays were big parties. Fate took a turn in his life; suddenly he had only a grandmother, father and little brother. He still misses the big gatherings!

It may be necessary to manufacture a family. Churches often have social clubs for older folks; restaurants often are a gathering place; public service agencies have special events for solitary residents; those who live in multiple family housing often form unofficial clusters for company.

The infirm can’t always participate. A healthy community will have ways to draw the infirm into social activity. In other words, extended family works both ways: try to bring the whole tribe together. If an individual can’t come to you, take the family to them.

It is inevitable that everyone dies. But as individuals live past genetically influenced lifespans, they must consciously and deliberately take countermeasures to offset both physical and mental degradation.

The wife returns tomorrow.

Ancient Mariner


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