'Loner' not necessarily a negative term

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'Loner' not necessarily a negative term

When you talk about your troubles, your ailments, your diseases, your hurts, you give longer life to what makes you unhappy.  Talking about your grievances merely adds to those grievances.    If you don’t talk about your grievances, you’ll be delighted to find them disappearing quickly—Thomas Dreier

New England poet Emily Dickinson, author J. D. Salinger and Albert Einstin are just three examples of people known for being loners – to the point of being actually reclusive.    In spite of that, we tend to think of each of them as having led very successful lives.

However, the necessity of being the opposite of a loner and the importance of social support as an individual ages is always accepted as an unquestioned doctrine in the world of senior services and the well-being of those who are aging.  Is it true that lack of social support can really hinder an aging person’s overall quality of life?

In totally different contexts, we know that a loner is a person who avoids or does not actively seek human interaction.  This person prefers to be alone. Of course, there are many reasons for solitude, intentional or otherwise, and the word “loner” itself implies no specific cause.

Intentional reasons might include spiritual or religious considerations or personal philosophies (Thoreau).  Unintentional reasons might involve being highly sensitive, having extreme forms of shyness or perhaps a mental disorder of some kind.  Especially in the context of aging, the term “loner”  is often used with a negative connotation[3] in the belief that human beings are social creatures and those who are not social are deviant somehow.

There are two distinct types of individuals that are called loners. The first type includes individuals that prefer solitude and are content to have very limited social interaction. The second type includes individuals that are forced to be isolated because they are rejected by society. This individual typically experiences loneliness.  The first types are not lonely even when they are alone. However, these are very broad generalizations, and experts say that it is not uncommon for loners to experience both of these dimensions at some point—their bliss due to solitude may come at the price of loneliness.

In popular culture, there is often a certain romanticism in the idea of a loner since he or she is seen as special and unique. The concept of a lonely hero is a recurring theme in stories.

In spite of this, deciding to be a loner is not a choice that many people have as they age.  Facilities for the aging insist that residents attend and participate in daily activities, accepting the belief that doing so will improve their existence.  In fact, it is such a strong and un-contested idea that lack of social support is said to be related to negative impacts on health and well being, especially for older people.  Reading any number of studies on this subject, you cannot avoid the idea, perhaps true, that having a variety of positive social supports can contribute to the psychological and physical wellness of elderly individuals.  Support from others can be important in reducing stress, increasing physical health and defeating psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.

At the risk of being contrary, maybe, when we are working with seniors with regard to their social activities, we should consider the type of person they were before they were seniors. Introvert of extrovert?  Introverts are not necessarily shy, they just enjoy being alone.  They tend to find other people tiring.  Extroverts, on the other hand, are energized by people, and will wilt or fade when alone.  They often seem bored when by themselves.  Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. On the other hand, there are respected researchers who believe that solitude is a human need, and to deny it is very unhealthy for both mind and body.  Dr. Ester Bucholz, , a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist who died in 2004 at the age of 71, did quite a bit of research on solitude during her career, what she called “alone time.” She thought that society undervalued solitude and alone time and overvalued attachment.

Introverts aren’t just less sociable than extroverts; they also engage with the world in fundamentally different ways. While outgoing “people people” savor the nuances of social interaction, loners tend to focus more on their own ideas—and on stimuli that don’t register in the minds of others. Social engagement drains them, while quiet time gives them an energy boost.

However, according to several sources, extroverts make up 60% to 75% of the population, so it’s no wonder that we tend to think everyone is extroverted.

If a senior retains any capacity for self-awareness, that is key to their overall quality of life and satisfaction.  As Jonathan Cheek, Wellesley College writes, “Some people simply have a low need for affiliation.  There’s a big subdivision between the loner-by preference and the enforced loner.”

Remember the old saying “Just because your mom disagrees with you doesn’t mean she has dementia!”  If she refuses activities you think are good for her, stop to think whether she was a “joiner” or a “loner” in her previous life.

Thanks for reading.  Stay well.  See you next week.

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