Loneliness is Real for Aging Parents

My 84-year-old mom fell in April when she tripped on asparagus that dropped from her grocery bag and broke her hip. I found out that she fell through a voicemail that I saved on my phone just so everyone else could hear how creepy it was. My mom calls or texts often throughout the day- even on days that I’m teaching. When I heard the preprogrammed ring for her number quietly sound from my desk drawer, I ignored it as I continued with my class. Her calls are often about a sale at some store or to tell me about something she just saw on TV, so I waited until passing time between classes to even listen to it. This one was flat out the scariest voicemail I’ve ever had. In a breathy, quiet voice she simply said, “please…help me…” and the line went dead.

I quickly went to our School Resource Officer who jumped into action by calling 911 and heading with me to her house. She had been on the kitchen floor with a broken hip for over an hour, struggling all the while to reach her phone to call and leave that spooky voicemail.

img_5135Throughout her hip replacement surgery and rehab, we decided as a family that it was time for her to move into a senior living community where she would be safe if anything like this ever happened again. We also discovered that she needed to be in an atmosphere that was enriching and active. She had been living by herself since my dad died ten years ago. While she always told us how busy she was, it became obvious pretty quickly that she was not only bored living alone, she was also depressed. She was hiding her depression and loneliness behind a smile whenever anyone was around.

img_5048She found ways to cope with her loneliness as evidenced by the volume of clothing, candles, lotions, jewelry, shoes, knick-knacks, books, wrapping paper, napkins, coffee mugs, and just about every other kind of thing that can be purchased. The amount of stuff hidden in her closets and drawers was staggering, to say the least. Many items still had the sales tags on them. There was a huge drawer full of flowers to put on the gravestones of my dad and other relatives. There were enough Christmas decorations to make at least three houses festive. She didn’t need any of these purchases, definitely not to that degree. She was buying simply for the act of communication with people. Interacting with the salespeople gave her conversations and an outlet from feeling alone. It was her way to connect and stave off the loneliness- one transaction at a time.

I know it probably sounds like she had no one around. That’s not the case. She had friends who often ate lunch together. She had a male companion who took her to dinner and the casino a couple times a week. We live near her, so she hung out at our house and came with us to our daughter’s sporting events. She continued to work part-time, just a few hours every Tuesday. She went to church. She had people. But, she didn’t know how to truly reach out to any of us. She didn’t know how to tell us that she needed more. I’m not sure that she even knew that she needed more.

My brothers and I have talked with her often through this transition period. She now understands that she was depressed and lonely since our dad died ten years ago. Living alone was tough, though she didn’t want to bother anyone with her feelings. She didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until she saw the boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff that she purchased to mask her pain.

She’s now in a senior living community and thriving! It’s warm and inviting. The staff is friendly. The other residents probably know all too well exactly what my mom was feeling. Because they get it, they reach out to each other. They play cards and dominoes. They have meals together. There are movie nights and sing-a-longs. There’s a walking trail on the property. They watch TV in each other’s apartments. They take day trips together. They live connected, just as life is meant to be lived.

My mom said that she probably wouldn’t have chosen to move if she hadn’t broken her hip. I’m thinking that the accident was a blessing in disguise. It forced her to step out of her shell and come alive again. She couldn’t hide behind the check out counter at the mall anymore. She couldn’t continue with the charade.

If you have aging parents or anyone who lives alone in your life, check on them more than you think you should. Don’t believe them when they say that they’re “busy.” Look for signs that might tell you otherwise. Take them on your Target run whether they want to go or not. Stop by to bring in the mail. Save them a seat next to you at church. Take them with you on a walk around the block. Drop in- just because.

Was my mom great at hiding her feelings? You bet- because she didn’t even know what she was feeling when she was in the middle of it. She sees it now- and she’s thankful that changes were made that gave her life back.


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