We live in a three bedroom, two bathroom house, which we share with two other people – sometimes three. Our landlord has all of his things in here, so we’re fully furnished. And, as luck would have it, the house came with a cat.
Now, I’ve never realllllly liked cats. Some of them are really nice, I think. But, I’m a dog person. Dogs are motivated to please their leader. And, I’m not gonna lie, I love when others make me happy. It’s like quality time, but probably quite selfish. Cats are motivated to please themselves – which I can relate to, but I don’t like it. I’m probably over-generalizing about the dog/cat differences. But this particular cat that lives here – Rimmer – is a pretty cool cat. I like him.
He’s deaf, partly blind, and he’s 18 years old. So when we got here, we kind of thought we’d get a good laugh out of hearing him meow – people like to laugh at animals on YouTube, so why not us in our own backyard? He can’t hear himself, so his voice is a little … squeaky? Loud? It’s unusual, that’s for sure.
But, as the autumn months fell, and then winter came, the meow, once hopeful that we would go outside and see him, became something different. It became a couple of loud cries in the night – which at first we thought were possums (possum is actually spelled that way here, so don’t you go telling anyone I misspelled a word, ok?). These cries would wake us up for a minute, then we’d go back to sleep. It started happening almost every morning before the sun came up (like a rooster…but a cat), and the meows and cries turned to these blood-curdling yowls. It’s cold now and it happens almost daily – less when the sun is shining.
He is lonely.
Rimmer and I understand each other. On the days Mark & I can spend extra time with him, he is happy. He doesn’t yowl or scream. He does walk back and forth from window to window, looking in to see where we are and why we are not with him. We had to put my dog down a week before Mark and I got married last year, and she used to listen to my problems and hug me, so sometimes I like to hug Rimmer. It makes me feel better.
The lesson here is not a lesson in ending animal cruelty or digging into the study of pet psychology. I’m not saying that animals can feel exactly what humans feel because who could really know that? But, this is what strikes me when I hear our cat screaming, yowling in the night: Loneliness is universal. It strikes for good reasons and bad reasons. If a cat can be lonely, then of course it is normal for us to be lonely. It really can affect anyone, and with company and help, we can feel better for a little at a time, at least.
I just want to go through some life stages with you. Each of these age groups deal with loneliness, just like each person experiences happiness, sadness, anger, etc. There are none that experience it, notably, more or less than any other age group. As we said the first day, it’s all of us. What does matter is what we do to treat ourselves when we feel isolated or excluded, as well as how we can help others to feel better.
It’s not a surprise that children, as small as infants, can have feelings of loneliness, but even once they are talking, they may not be able to verbalize, I feel alone. I need you to spend time with me. need to be held. It comes out in many different ways, and some of those ways may be even more loud and annoying than Rimmer’s midnight yowls. 🙂
Thirty-six years ago, in 1990, there were about 20% of single-parent households. Today, statistics say it is about 33% (Cacioppo 53). This compounds the feelings our children have of loneliness, abandonment, being left out. It’s a long way from a world where we all thrived in close-knit communities. Even at a young age, loneliness can take a hold. And no child should be alone.
We say that teenagers “over-react”. Their lives are filled with drama, they burst into tears for no reason, they punch walls just-because. But, what if there’s more to it than shifting hormones? Loneliness affects your executive functioning in the brain – your ability to goal-set and make decisions. If a teen is being made to feel isolated, even ostracized, at school, then of course they are going to “over-react”.
I think it’s especially important to remember during these years that the problems teenagers face are real to them. Sometimes, they are just doing the best they can to survive. They need a little sympathy before we yell at them. We don’t see what happens at school, or who put something hurtful about them on social media. They are trying to figure out where they belong, and if they can’t, then they can develop severe, chronic feelings of loneliness.
It’s pretty interesting to note that in studies with young adults, drinking alcohol is usually pursued by the non-lonely rather than the lonely (Cacioppo 30). It’s only later in life that lonely people turn, or continue to turn, to alcohol, and it becomes a problem.
Just in reading what I have studied, it seems that this age group is a very important time to develop coping skills for any negative emotion. The health problems correlating with loneliness seem to begin here. Studies of college students found that immune response and total peripheral resistance were greatly affected in students with higher degrees of loneliness (Pressman, Cohen, & Miller’s “Loneliness, social network size, and immune response vaccination in college freshmen”, Cacioppo 106).
Have a read of this: “…Lonely young people perceive themselves to be having a tougher time, and, over time, the stress of that subjective sense of being under the gun can create wear and tear throughout the organism. By the time they reach middle age, people who are chronically lonely have more divorces, more run-ins with neighbors, more estrangement from family. By middle age, the tougher time they may have perceived themselves to be experiencing has become a reality” (Cacioppo 35, Steptoe & Owen’s “Loneliness and neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and inflammatory stress responses in middle-aged men and women” – 2004). Young adulthood is where most of us begin to gather without treating stress related to loneliness – and this leads to problems down the road.
MIDDLE AGE ADULTS
By the time we get through the teenage and younger adult years, we’ve conditioned ourselves to live within some fairly negative perceptions. This is why it is so important to count our blessings, to practice positive thinking, to get to know ourselves, and to be with others. All of these – treating our feelings – are important to staying healthy longer.
But, statistically, lonely adults drink more alcohol, exercise less, eat more fatty foods, and have a lower quality of sleep even though they get the same amount of sleep as everyone else (Cacioppo 30). These are symptoms of what is happening inside. The cardiovascular system can be damaged (106) and the chemicals associated with feeling unwanted or isolated “act as a corrosive fore that accelerates the aging process”, much like stress (32). Serious loneliness can seriously mess up vital cellular processes (34). Loneliness does make us sick, and the older we get, the more we’re able to see its ugly head.
All the more reason to take care of ourselves now.
In the United States, there are over 2 million more people living alone than there were fifteen years ago. About 40% of those are over the age of 65 (Hobbs & Stoops’ Demographic trends in the 20th century). Our cat is old and lives outside, alone. He’d probably make a really good friend to an older adult, and our landowner has thought about donating him at times.
Here is something quite interesting from a 2006 study: “…When we drew blood from older adults and analyzed their white cells, we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed. Loneliness predicted changes in DNA transcription that, in turn, made changes in the cell’s sensitivity to circulating cortisol, dampening the ability to shut off the inflammatory response (Adam, Hawkley, & Kudielka’s “Day-to-day dynamics of experience: Cortisol associations in a population-based sample of older adults”). Whoa. That is crazy, right? Loneliness was also found connected to the stress hormone epinephrine, as well as daytime fatigue, and lower quality of sleep (Cacioppo 10, Hawkley & Cacioppo “Aging and loneliness: Downhill quickly?”). If you feel like there is no one around to listen to you, to sit with you – to care about you, then that will hurt you. That is why it is so important to visit people in nursing homes, or even just people who live alone. It’s hard to be alone.
There are more and more older adults having to live the last part of their lives alone, and there is so much that loneliness can destroy. And that is sad, isn’t it?
I know that there are a lot of statistics in here, but I think it’s really important to understand the process loneliness takes to beat us down, from childhood to old age. We can combat it now for the future, and we can help those in different age groups when we understand a little of what is happening in their body, mind, and soul.
Catch up on our other “Loneliness” posts here:
1. Loneliness: It’s All of Us
2. Loneliness: The Problem, the Paradoxical Virus, and a Cure
3. Loneliness: Finding the “Inner” Person
4. Loneliness: Finding the “Other” Person
5. Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What you Do
6. Loneliness: For the In-Between
7. Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People
And these are coming soon!
15 July Final Thoughts on an Un-Final Topic