Only The Lonely

By Priscilla Pittman, MSW, MA

Mary pushed her grocery cart through the store reciting the items needed for the casserole.  She nodded and smiled at a silver headed man who greeted her with a cheerful “Good morning.” Busily cruising the aisles trying to remember the list she’d left on the table, and she passed him again.  He smiled and she asked if she could help him find something.  “No,” he replied, he was still trying to decide.  Finally, content she had done the best she could, she headed for the check-out aisle.  And here he was again; his cart remained empty.  Concerned, she touched his arm and asked if she could help him.  He lowered his head and said, “Mam, this is the only place where people will talk to me.”  A conversation followed that revealed the death of his wife following a battle with cancer, and the loneliness that consumed him.

Dr. Nancy Donovan, director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston reports, “For people who have high levels of amyloid –the people truly at high risk for Alzheimer’s—they were 7.5 times more likely to be lonely than non-lonely.”

More research is needed, but Wolf-Klein asks, “If you were able to impact on this loneliness by creating interventions where people were taken out of their loneliness and engaged in social events, would you have less likelihood of progression toward dementia?” (1)

The grocery store experience could also include an Alzheimer’s caregiver.  When caring for a spouse, the couple may still be married, but the change in the relationship is dramatic.  Despite hugs and smiles, the social, emotional and physical aspect of their marriage has been dissolved by the disease, and the term, married but widowed is often heard.  (2)

In addition, William Thomas, M.D. designed the Eden Alternative version of long-term care to deal with the plague of loneliness, helplessness and boredom he observed in the traditional system.  (3)  These three terms are also problematic for any elderly person living alone or in long-term care.  Too often caregivers bring a parent to their home believing they are rescuing them from long-term care.  But if the caregiver is employed full time, the parent is abandoned during work hours leaving them without another social base.

How can we treat loneliness?  An organization called Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly in San Francisco is striving to alleviate the problem by providing visits from volunteers.  Older clients served by the agency say they found the stairs once climbed easily are now a roadblock; the illnesses that occur also keep them at home. (4)


In the UK, a volunteer staffed agency called the Silver Line receives phone calls from lonely, older people.  They hear from about 10,000 people each week, and they are the only communication resource for 53% of their callers.  The Helpline shares: area resources, helps them get in touch with a service that provides visits, and helps protect those being harmed from continued abuse. (5)




Building social connections is good medicine.  No More Throw Away People or Time Dollars describes a method of creating social connections.  This theme would make an excellent model for religious or community organizations.  A person could accrue points by cleaning, mowing, cooking, transporting, etc. someone in need.  The points could then be used by their family or the individual when needed.  Some people would be less likely to refuse assistance if they, their friend or family member had earned the hours of aid they needed. (6)

“Loneliness is a huge issue we don’t talk enough about,” said Dr Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer of AARP Services.  “There is a huge stigma.” (4)

  2. AFA Care Quarterly, Spring 2015
  3. What are Old People For?, Dave Thomas, M.D.
  4.   AARP,
  6.  No More Throw-Away People,  Time Dollars,  Edgar Cahn