My cousin Stan retired at an early age from his job as a steelworker and wasted no time skipping town. He loaded his few belongings into an Airstream trailer, hitched it to his pickup, and headed southwest. For the past decade or so, he’s been living somewhere in the Arizona desert with his dog. Not a care in the world.
When I first heard of Stan’s flight from civilization, I had to admit to feeling a twinge of envy. There’s always been something slightly thrilling to me about setting off to live on my own — life would be simpler, more deliberate. No obligations. As that crusty evangelist of solitude, H. D. Thoreau, put it in Walden, it would “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Thoreau, of course, built his shack on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s woodlot and entertained more visitors than he probably preferred. And I’ve gradually come to my senses about the whole fantasy of escaping to the woods — or wherever — in search of some transcendental something or other. For all my aversion to polite society, I’ve always understood at some level that none of us thrives without community. Besides, I’d really miss My Lovely Wife.
This old thought experiment surfaced recently when I stumbled upon a story by Katie Hafner in the New York Times describing “an epidemic of loneliness” among the elderly. About a third of people 65 and over in the United States and U.K. live alone, Hafner reports, and research suggests that as many as 46 percent of these folks suffer from chronic loneliness. This is not simply an emotional or mental-health issue. Studies have linked loneliness to physical illness and cognitive decline; it’s more likely than obesity to lead to an early death.
“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public-health problem,” says University of California, San Francisco, geriatrician Carla Perissinotto, PhD. “It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”
Researchers have in recent years tracked the neurological and biological impacts of chronic loneliness, linking it to depression as well as higher stress levels and impaired immune response. University of Chicago psychology professor John Cacioppo, PhD, calls loneliness an “aversive signal” on a par with thirst, hunger, and pain. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” he says.
I haven’t seen nor heard from Stan since he left civilization behind, but last spring I visited his sister in Florida, who offered an update on his situation. He’s still in the desert, and his daughter lives nearby, so he sees her fairly regularly. But a year ago, he flew to Atlanta for a wedding and admitted that the social stimulation was too much to bear. He hurried back to the desert as soon as he could politely escape.
That probably wasn’t the loneliness talking — if it talks at all — but more likely the shock of interacting with a world he’d left behind. Neither condition, however, seems particularly healthy to this geezer. Even Thoreau enjoyed a lively conversation.