Staying connected as we get older

By Ian Simms, Head of Pastoral Care and Volunteer Services at Southern Cross Care WA

 

It’s a curious irony we live with, you know. The improved communications and the rapid transport are supposed to make us feel more connected to other parts of the world. Yet for all that, we can be some of the most isolated of people.

 

Social media promises something similar by way of connectedness. I am so non-tech-savvy that it came as a shock to me to discover, the other day, that it is possible to buy ‘likes’ on Facebook. Why would anyone do that? To appear more popular, more connected, it seems. The Washington Post reported on this marketing technique six years ago, and for $30 you could buy 500 ‘friends’, or for $699 you could boost your friendship circle by 20,000 people!

 

So what’s the deal, then? Well, when we’ve gotten past all the techno-hype that can make older folk feel like we’ve lost several pages of our book somewhere along the line, we actually find ourselves considering a profoundly human need: we want to be connected. In fact, we need to be connected. Whether it’s friends, superficial or real, we have a pressing desire to be linked somewhere, somehow. It’s one of the things that trouble us about growing older, that we will be confined or cut off by failing bodies and minds, abandoned by family and friends, and without even a dog or a cat to call a friend. Disconnectedness can terrify us.

 

Strange as it may sound, there are a number of subtle incentives for us to disconnect as we get older. Perhaps we feel that it will take too much energy to remain connected, so let me rather stay at home and conserve my strength. Very often, though, we make that assessment based on what we did as younger people when we stayed out late and talked into the small hours of the night. But staying connected doesn’t have to consume all our energy in the same way as it did when we were younger. We don’t have to do things the way we used to do them.

 

Perhaps we are just content with our own company or our spouse’s company. After all, it’s taken us 60 or more years to get used to this person in our skin, never mind the person who keeps waking up in our bed each morning! Let’s just enjoy the benefit of that comfort. So older married couples find that their lives revolve more and more around their spouse, as though that person is everything I need and he or she will always be there. But, tragically and inevitably, spouses pass away, and it is precisely at that point that the benefit of connectedness comes into its own.

 

Perhaps we prefer to remain disconnected because we’ve been made to feel out of touch by some insensitive attitudes and remarks. In the face of such responses, we withdraw into the world we know and trust. There’s just one problem with all these incentives. We seem to need connection, and without it we drift away, or become anxious and overwhelmed with sadness.

 

What would help to keep us connected? The hardest part is accepting that we need connection, but once that is clear, it’s a matter of finding what the bridges could be.

 

Here are some bridges I’ve seen work:

Walking and greeting

Not only is it a great exercise to walk, but to walk in a place where there are other people reminds us that we are part of a diverse group. Notice the people, greet some of them, even if one or two don’t return the greeting. You will be surprised by the reactions, and you will be delighted by the occasional conversation that happens quite spontaneously.

Joining a group that cares

There are many groups in the community that welcome new members. Community centres, men’s sheds and interest groups can be wonderful focal points in the week. Churches are centres of care and compassion, and there are numerous activities in local churches that are open to newcomers where new friends
can be made.

Volunteering

It does wonders to flip our self-centred culture on its head and offer to make someone else’s life better, rather than just our own. There are so many organisations that would value having your involvement. At SCC, we have over 175 kind-hearted people who volunteer with us, and what an amazing band of people they are. If we don’t have what you’re looking for, there are many other organisations available. All it takes is an intentional conversation with me or a member of staff at any one of those organisations.

It could be the start of a whole new approach to the adventurous years of growing older.