Barbara is 78, in good health and a recent widow. For the last six years, her focus has been caring for her husband, who was seriously crippled by a combination of severe arthritis and stenosis, and then was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. After his death, her children worried that she could no longer live alone in her home of 50 plus years. Barbara knew they probably were right, so the home was sold and Barbara was moved, along with severely pared down possessions and her favorite pieces of furniture, to an upscale retirement community.
But, having made the move, Barbara is miserable and lonely. Normally an upbeat person, she found nothing she liked about her new home. When she looked out the window—and fortunately she has several—she saw nothing but other buildings and brick walls, not the beautiful garden she used to enjoy so much. When she walks down the hall to reach the elevator that will take her to the first floor, she doesn’t know if it is night or day, sunny or raining because there are no windows and only a few lights, just enough for her to see where she is going. All the doors she passes are closed, so the hall is absolutely silent and she meets no one. She has no idea whether any of her neighbors, whom she doesn’t know anyway, are home.
Barbara goes to the dining hall for meals, but no one invites her to join a table or even acknowledges her presence, so she eats alone. Though the food is delicious, if she has to eat alone she might as well cook for herself in her own apartment, she thinks. Finally at one dinner, someone does sit down at a table with her and Barbara, who is naturally friendly and gregarious, tries to start a conversation. Try as she might, she could find no topic that engaged her new companion, no common interests or concerns, nothing at all, so she gave up and went back to her apartment. This doesn’t happen just once, but recurs meal after meal.
Over time, Barbara realizes she is not really depressed, but is truly unhappy and lonely. She has come from a full life with many friends to this new home where she has yet to make friends. She still feels like a stranger in a foreign land where no one even tries to speak her language or make her feel welcome.
Some Possible Answers
Life transitions are always difficult, especially at Barbara’s age when she has lost both her husband and the home where she lived for so many years and raised her children, knew all her neighbors and the stores she had patronized for years. Of course there had been changes, as friends moved or died, stores closed and friendly merchants disappeared, but these had been gradual, nothing like the abrupt shift Barbara was now experiencing.
No doubt her family recognized how difficult this transition would be and found ways to help her adjust and make a difficult transition more gradual. Perhaps they could have done more, maybe had her spend weekends with them and then made sure they visited regularly, shared meals with her and took her on regular outings. That way she wouldn’t have felt as if she had simply been “dumped” in her new quarters, no matter how perfect the retirement community seemed to outsiders.
The retirement community also had an essential role to play. Barbara certainly was not alone as she was suddenly confronted with so many major changes late in life. These communities are home to an older population that purposely chose to live in this type of facility, so the community needs to provide an environment where residents can build a new life, one that probably is completely different from the life they had lived before, and — this is important — build it with others who are doing the same. Barbara certainly is not alone in her loneliness. None of the newcomers have the tools needed to do this, so the adjustment can take a very long time, one that is marred by extreme loneliness and sadness.
Retirement communities need to understand this and come up with ways to help newcomers by giving them the tools they need to integrate and adjust to a new environment so they will be able to make the best of their new lives. To accomplish this may require the help of professionals, like social workers, who come to the community to address the needs of individual residents, recognizing that some, like Barbara, may never have made this kind of transition while others may have moved and changed residences frequently. The professionals on the staff can help Barbara and others in similar circumstances cope with these major changes, help them to meet other residents who might have similar interests or backgrounds, and help them to find renewed meaning and focus in life.
In Barbara’s case, perhaps someone on the staff could help her to find new direction to her life by showing her ways to contribute to the larger community so that she feels needed. Perhaps she could volunteer for a shift at the retirement community’s thrift shop or assist at the nearby day care center. The staff could help her find other ways to take her away from the dark and silent halls and provide meaningful outlets and much needed socialization with people of all ages.
The Bottom Line
Though Barbara is healthy, energetic and mobile, everyone — especially her family and the retirement community staff — needs to recognize that major life changes are difficult for anyone, but especially so for a recently widowed woman in her late 70s. Everyone needs to recognize how difficult this major life change will be and make every effort to ease the transition from long-time home and friends to a new and strange retirement community. Given time and the support she needs, Barbara’s loneliness and unhappiness should be replaced by new friends and new focus to her life in the new home she might one day come to enjoy. Then she will be a contributing member of the community, not a lonely outsider.
Barbara is a fictitious composite based on the experiences of a number of retirement community dwellers. The old saying “any similarity to actual persons or places, living or dead, is merely coincidental” applies to Barbara and her story. Both the problems and answers were suggested by Dr. Rim Mughir, a geriatric psychiatrist who practices in northern Virginia.
This article was reviewed November 2023 since it originally published in February, 2016.