Not a one, he told me. No immediate family. No close friends. He had a niece down South, maybe, but they hadn’t spoken in years.
For me, the sadness of his death was surpassed only by the sadness of his solitude.
Every day I see variations at both the beginning and end of life: a young man abandoned by friends as he struggles with opioid addiction; an older woman getting by on tea and toast, no longer able to clean her cluttered apartment. In these moments, it seems the only thing worse than suffering a serious illness is suffering it alone.
Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.
About one-third of Americans older than 65 live alone; half of those over 85 do. People in poor health — especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression — are likelier to feel lonely. Those without a college education are the least likely to have someone they can talk to about important personal matters.
A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. People with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, an effect largest in middle age.
Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.
Loneliness is especially tricky because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face, and makes it hard to ask for help.
Boomerang Boom: More Firms Tapping the Skills of the Recently Retired退休人士 成公司人力雇用新寵
Call them boomerang retirees: people who exit gracefully after their career at a company, then return shortly afterward to work there part time.
More and more companies are establishing formal programs to facilitate this, for reasons that benefit the employer and the retiree. Leaving a satisfying job cold-turkey for a life of leisure can be an abrupt jolt to people accustomed to feeling purposeful, earning money and enjoying their colleagues. From the corporate perspective, it is useful to have experienced hands who can train younger people, pass along institutional wisdom and work with fewer strings attached.
“People in the U.S. define themselves by their work, and they like their co-workers,” said Roselyn Feinsod, senior partner in the retirement practice at the human resources firm Aon Hewitt, the human resources consultancy. Thus, unlike many retirees from past generations, people from the blue-collar and white-collar sectors are more eager to retain ties to the familiar working world that they enjoyed (and sometimes loathed).
Mark Keefe, who spent his career as a human resources manager at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey, retired in 2014, when he was 66. Since his wife still worked, he took on household chores and cooked evening meals. “It was really a time to relax,” he said.
But the company that owns Overlook, Atlantic Health Systems of Morristown, New Jersey, is among the growing ranks of employers that sponsor a formal program to invite retirees back into the workforce, for no more than 1,000 hours per year. The company’s Alumni Club — formerly known as the 1,000 Hour Club — was established in 2006, and about 300 Atlantic Health retirees are on the company’s payroll in various capacities. “They’re engaged employees; they’re productive,” said Lesley Meyer, Atlantic Systems’ manager of corporate human resources. “They’re a stable talent pool.”
Starting in March 2015, Keefe began putting on a suit and tie and returning to work every Wednesday. He taps his human resources experience to counsel employees who are nearing retirement about benefit packages.
The soon-to-be-retired always have plenty of questions, and Keefe enjoys offering them information and guidance, including insights gleaned from his own experience. “I look at it this way: I have a six-day weekend,” he said. “I love it.”