Close Connections: Isolation – question it!


By Nancy Norman

Do you believe the warnings about isolation in the elder population? One such assertion is that not being isolated will help you live longer. In other words, if you’re isolated, you’ll die sooner. But who says?

A friend of mine who very much likes her own company and goes out occasionally to shop and lunch with friends said she wonders if her amount of socializing is good enough. She’s read in several popular magazines that not being isolated makes people live longer. Is she isolated by society’s standards? Now she’s worried she might be.

So I decided to look for studies that prove that hypothesis true. And I asked a doctor who works with older patients if she believes that. She said she doesn’t, that’s it’s an individual thing. But she said she’d look at the literature and see what she could find in the way of scientific studies (i.e., based on a large enough number of people and rigorous methods to make sound predictions).

Guess what? I scanned 40 pages of Google listings for studies about isolation and living longer and could not find any recent studies. Also couldn’t find any relevant older studies. The doctor then reported she couldn’t find any either. Can you?

What is the definition of “isolation” anyway? My picture is of someone old and infirm with no family or friends who doesn’t go out of the house. It’s extreme. What’s yours?

I have a close friend whose joy comes from watching sports on TV. She does socialize, but her druthers is being comfy at home, enjoying the games. Sometimes her kids or friends tell her she’s too isolated—she’ll get sick! But she doesn’t agree. (Personally, I think she’ll live longer if she does what she loves.)

So, the point is to look closely at this and other beliefs that are presented as medical truths about aging. When an idea is printed and talked about enough times, it can begin to shape our lives–what we’re supposed to be doing, what we should want.

Another part of checking any so-called medical facts is to ask who benefits from us believing this assertion. What industries?

Should we really strive to be the glamorous elder we’ve all seen in the magazines and internet? That is, someone who has a partner, is in good health, exercises regularly, eats a sensible diet, socializes often, volunteers, goes to church, dresses nicely and is well groomed. The pressure’s on to live that way. But what if we don’t want to?

What if living long isn’t even our goal? What if living a life that feels right for us is more like it? This might look like old clothes and a straw hat poking around in a garden with no appointments on the calendar. Do we feel lonely? Sometimes. Do we see how this allows for time to reflect on our lives and ask ourselves what we want to do next? Definitely!

Exploring the “truth” of these truths can take time. But living our true lives is worth it, isn’t it?

Nancy Norman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, musician with The Storys duo and former “Intimacy” columnist for “The Wichita Eagle.” Email her at

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