With all the lonely people in the world it’s a crime to be lonely alone. Remember, intimacy is not a gender issue; it’s a human issue.
My client, Janice, is 62 years old. She has late onset diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. She is a neatly dressed, silver haired woman with gnarled hands and feet. The thick lenses of her glasses sit heavily on her pleasant, open face. She is of medium build, and walks with the aid of a cane. She has the shy, nervous demeanor of a young girl, often absent-mindedly fidgeting with the buttons on her favorite mauve sweater. She is a Red Cross volunteer and a recent widow. She was raised a Methodist in Alton, Illinois, a small town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, but she currently has no religious affiliation. “I miss not having a church to attend. At least the social part of it.”
Her husband Albert died in the hospital of congestive heart failure 18 months ago. Albert’s sudden death dramatically changed her life. She was forced to give up the comfortable home they shared for nearly 30 years and now lives alone in a modest apartment in a subsidized senior housing complex.
She says she is often alone and lost in her profound grief. “Our marriage was a traditional one, the kind that was popular fifty years ago. Albert was solely responsible for the family finances. He shared little of the intricacies of these things with me. I’m afraid that he kept me completely in the dark about all of it.” Albert withheld their troubled financial situation from her in order to shield her from the unpleasantness. He died without a will or an estate plan, leaving Janice completely lost and befuddled.
Albert died in intensive care and Janice was unable to be with him when he died. She has a great deal of guilt about this. She claims that her biggest fear is “dying alone in some awful hospital, hooked up to a bunch of beeping machines.” However, she’s just as anxious about becoming dependent on strangers. “You see, I’m losing my eyesight to the diabetes.”
I ask her, “Why do you suppose it’s so difficult for you to ask for help?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just afraid to ask for what I need. When Albert was alive we used to look after one another. Of course, I don’t want to be a bother either. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there have been times that I have gone to bed hungry because I couldn’t open a can of soup; my arthritis being so bad. But would I call a neighbor and ask for help? No! Well, there’s no fool like an old fool. That’s for sure. I don’t want this to continue. Oh, how I wish I had family to count on.”
I ask Janice about her relationship with her husband, Albert.
“I’ve been with only one man my entire life, my husband Albert. Our sex life was very conventional. And if the truth be known, there wasn’t even much of that. I always wondered if I disappointed him. I guess now I’ll never know. You’ll have to excuse me, but this makes me very uncomfortable. I guess I’m just old fashioned. I was brought up believing that ladies don’t talk about such things in polite company.”
“Ya know, Janice, there are a lot of us who make the distinction between sex and intimacy. Perhaps, you don’t miss the sex, but I’m guessing you miss the intimacy. Am I correct?”
“To tell the truth, I don’t miss it at all. The sex, I mean. But, yes, I do miss the companionship. I’m so very lonely now. I mean, you get pretty attached to a person after thirty-nine years together. What I wouldn’t do for just one more hug from my dear Albert. It’s the predicament of so many women that I know. The senior center is filled with widows who are starving for affection. It’s so unfair.”
“Yes, it’s criminal; all these lonely people being lonely alone. It’s my experience that many seniors and elders don’t know how to form intimate relationships after the death of their spouse. They are often self-conscious about their needs and desires, like sex, dating, or even forming a close relationship with someone else. Rather than put themselves out there to find fulfillment, they, like you Janice, follow the path of least resistance. Their intimacy needs shrivel and die long before they do because they lack an outlet for their affections. Sad to say, this can leave them cranky and curmudgeonly. It’s such a waste, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I certainly think I have a tendency to be like that myself. Yet I have this overpowering fear of dying alone. And I don’t mean alone as in solitary. I would feel just as alone if the only people attending me as I die were people I didn’t know. So it’s not about care, really, it’s about being loved. Is that so much to ask? Maybe I should just stop now.”
“We can talk a break, if you’d like, but I think we’re really on to something here, don’t you agree?”
“I’ve never had much of an interest in sex and I don’t see that changing at this late stage in the game, but I do continue to be interested in friendship. Since the death of my husband I’ve been very much alone. I so miss the companionship we used to share. Do you think it’s too late for a person like me to find that kind of thing again?”
“Of course it’s not too late, Jan.” May I ask you if you are taking hormone replacement therapy? I’m assuming that you are post-menopausal. Am I correct?”
“I went through menopause years ago, but I’ve never taken hormone replacements. Why do you ask?”
“Many women find that their libido, their interest in sex, disappears after menopause. It’s simply a chemical thing that happens as one ages. Many post-menopausal women don’t know about this option and so they go through some of the best years of their life without knowing the joys of sexual intimacy unfettered by concerns of becoming pregnant. I used to be a strong advocate of natural hormone replacement for all post-menopausal women. However, nowadays I encourage women to engage their doctors in a frank conversation about the pros and cons of this therapy. There is a known connection between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and breast cancer. Breast cancer survivors who took HRT to relieve menopausal symptoms had more than three times as many breast cancer recurrences as survivors who did not take HRT.”
“I had no idea. But what if I’m not interested in sex, should I bother my doctor about this?”
“Like I said, there’s sex and then there’s sensuality and/or intimacy. Maybe you have no interest in the one, but it sounds like you still want the other. You might find that HRT could help you overcome some of the barriers that appear to be in place preventing you from forming new and life-affirming relationships. Besides, the benefit of discussing this issue with your physician is two-fold. First, you’ll get information you need to make an educated decision about the therapy itself. And second, you will have established a working relationship with your OB/GYN on the topic of your intimate life.”
“I see. You make a good point, Richard. Thank you.”
“Ya know, Jan, there are plenty of options open to you if it’s simply companionship you seek. You’re living in a senior complex, right? Have you met your neighbors? Why not strike up a conversation? Join in the planned activities. What are your interests? How about taking a class? What about the Red Cross; are you still volunteering? I’ll bet you have loads of leisure time. It is often said that an acquaintance is a friend just waiting to be discovered. And if that’s true, then a friend could become a companion, and a companion could even become a lover or partner. But like everything else that’s worthwhile in life, it will take some time and energy on your part.”
“I always have the best of intentions, Richard. I leave our sessions full of hope and plans for getting out of this rut I am in. But, by the time I get home, all the wind goes out of my sails. I feel like such a failure.”
“No need to be self-defeating. You have the will to make the changes you want; now all we have to do is develop a strategy for accomplishing your goals. You mentioned something very touching earlier. You spoke with such eloquence about the plight of all the lonely senior women you know. Have you considered having another woman as a companion? Like I said, with all the lonely people in the world it’s a crime to be lonely alone. Remember, intimacy is not a gender issue; it’s a human issue.