To get a handle on loneliness in the elderly, Father Peter Abas, parochial administrator at St. Anne Parish in Rochester, asked seniors he was counseling to describe their lives through art.
Together, they painted a picture. One woman contributed a cactus to the canvas.
“Life for her is a cactus — so dry,” he said.
That was just one metaphor of many that seniors used to describe their lives to Father Abas as he researched his doctoral dissertation on how elderly individuals describe and interpret the experience of loneliness.
“Loneliness is the existence of a powerful void; the state of being overwhelmed with work and life; the state of emotional pain; and the state of no direction,” he said.
He earned his doctorate in education with a specialization in geriatric populations in December of 2007 from the University of Rochester’s Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development. In addition to the doctorate, Father Abas also has three master’s degrees and has worked in a variety of fields, including youth ministry with street gangs in the Bronx. At St. Anne, Father Abas has led several initiatives for the elderly, including discussion groups and an intergenerational drum circle.
In January, Father Abas left to take a seven-week journey back to his native Borneo, where he grew up in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Speaking in an interview prior to his trip, he said he intends to continue his research by interviewing the elderly in Borneo as well. He said he plans to compare whether a different cultural background changes how people describe loneliness.
He said work on his doctorate “Loneliness and Lived Experiences of Elderly Individuals Living Independently: A Hermeneutic Phenomological Approach” took two years to complete. He recruited volunteers from throughout upstate New York who were 65 years and older and living independently. All were from different professional backgrounds, and his research subjects included a retired social worker, a retired English teacher and a retired professional truck driver.
Father Abas had the seniors describe their everyday lives, then he was able to interpret the meaning of the phrases they used and the words they said to him.
“I couldn’t jump to the conclusion of whether they were lonely or not,” Father Abas noted.
As he began to explore the theme of loneliness more, Father Abas asked people what they did when they were lonely, how they would explain the reason for their loneliness and how they would describe their experience with loneliness.
“Some of them found it easy to speak, and they were very open with their story,” Father Abas said. “Some found it really difficult.”
Although he was confronted with initial reluctance, Father Abas did have success when he asked the elderly to describe a favorite memory, which led to disclosures about loneliness.
“I could even see some of them really feel a burden in their lives,” he said.
Many used metaphors to describe their lives, such as a flowing river, a flower, a cross, a sunset, an oak tree, an entangled circle or a spinning top.
After a while, though, as participants continued meeting with Father Abas, some began to look at the world in more positive ways. For example, the person who described life as a flowing river amended the statement to say the river was not that treacherous.
“It’s flowing much better,” Father Abas recalled the person saying.
Sue Murty, director of social work at St. Ann’s Community in Rochester, said isolation and loneliness in the elderly can be caused by the loss of loved ones; the loss of independence, such as the loss of driving abilities; and the loss of physical abilities, such as hearing or mobility.
She said seniors often are reluctant to talk about being lonely, so neighbors and friends should keep watch for signs of changes in routine, reclusive behavior or depression. Another sign may be an eagerness to talk for a long time, she said. Friends and neighbors should begin asking questions if they see signs of loneliness, she noted.
“Start by saying, who else do you get support from? Are there other persons in your life?” Murty said.
Father Abas said other ways to cope with loneliness include having a strong faith, acknowledging the importance of prayer, accepting loss and coming to terms with the fact that a person is alone.
It also is important for seniors to take care of their health so that a loss of mobility does not isolate them, he said. Seniors also should consider the time and talents that they are able to give, and they should maintain social connections to counter loneliness.
“Within the church parish level, they can join a social-programming group or some involvement in their church,” Father Abas said.
Most importantly, seniors should turn to others if they are feeling isolated, he noted.
“The way to work through it is to ask for help from people,” Father Abas said.