Facing loneliness

It can be tough to admit, but if you’re feeling lonely there are simple, positive steps you can take to lessen it, says Wendyl Nissen.

Loneliness is not something I ever thought I would experience, but in recent years we’ve become great friends.

Admitting that you are lonely is a tough thing to do because society insists that to be a good person you must be outgoing, popular, have strong friendships and be seen out and about enjoying yourself on a regular basis. Well, that’s how I always interpreted society’s expectations of me.

But then I was always outgoing. My mother used to say that from a very early age I always loved a good party, which was true. I never had trouble developing good friendships with lots of people. So much so that I never stopped to do a friend count or question if I had enough people in my life. I just had lots of friends, lucky me. I don’t think I ever stopped to think about loneliness and how it affects people.

But for the past few years I’ve had moments when I’ve stood on my deserted beach, below my rural property in my sparsely populated area of this country and thought that I might be a bit lonely.

I could blame Covid, which has become responsible for so many problems in our lives, but I think it was more about turning my back on my outgoing self.

I decided that as I got older my father’s genes were taking over. I was becoming more like my Dad who has always been rather shy and very happy with his own company.

I can remember him moaning and groaning on many occasions at having to accompany my very social mother out to dinners and lunches and parties where he would have to drink and be merry. He would rather, as he stated often, stay home with a good book.

There is something about a good book that ticks all the boxes for me. An excuse to recline. A reason to make a hot cup of tea and grab a biscuit. A need to find a bit of sunshine shining through the window on the couch. A perfect justification to escape for a few hours and sit still for once. In other words, a good time.

Before we moved north, I remember saying to my husband that I just wanted to read books for six months and do nothing else. Of course, I have never spent six months reading books and doing nothing else as I find it hard not to work because I love writing. Something I might have to work on as I get older and approach retirement age.

When I moved north, I knew I would miss all my friends in the city. There were good, old friends who had been with me for years, newer younger friends who opened my eyes to new things and work friends who I liked and happily spent time with.

“But we’ll never see you,” they said wiping their eyes (not really but I imagined they did when I wasn’t looking).I told each and every one of them that they could come and visit.

“Quality time, not quantity time,” I told them. “I’ll actually spend more time with you because you will come and stay a few nights!”

And so, they did, driving four hours north, making time in their busy schedules, bringing gifts of food and wine. It was all good. One of my closest friends even bought a property just up the road from us, which could have been interpreted as a wonderful act of friendship but was actually more to do with her shared love of the Hokianga.

I began to embrace the time I had alone and looked forward to visiting friends.

Then during Covid the friends didn’t come because for a long time they couldn’t and then, well, it’s a long way to go when you’ve already been there several times I’m guessing.

I also noticed that there was a subtle change in the world where it became alright to set boundaries and not spend all your time going out every night to pubs and restaurants with your mates. To say, “I’m a bit of a stay-at-home kind of person.”

Hallelujah I thought. At last, it is okay to be Nellie No Mates.

Ten years later, that’s pretty much what I am and as I age it is not a good place to be.

It appears, based on solid scientific research in humans, inflammation in the body is higher in people who have poor social networks, social engagement, or who experience loneliness.

I’m quoting Professor Rose Anne Kenny* who is a world-leading geriatrician at Trinity College Dublin, where she leads a huge, long-term study on ageing.

She says that social participation, friendship and social relationships are as important as all of the other measures that we talk about so frequently, like exercise and diet and physical activity.

One of the many studies she quotes, and recently talked about on the ZOE podcast, involves macaque monkeys.

If you isolate a monkey and do a biopsy of their lymph nodes, which are the engine for inflammation in the body, the genes that regulate inflammation are active.

“In other words, there was an inflammatory process going on, and the genes that fight against infection and are good for the immune system had been downregulated. So, they’d been dampened down, were not as active as they should have been, and that was just within 48 hours of monkeys being isolated.”

Crikey. As I listened to that podcast, I combined my recent introduction to loneliness with my isolated lifestyle and realised that I probably needed to get back to my old life. The one where I lived a few minutes’ drive from my children and grandchildren, where I met friends regularly for coffee and chats, where I never had to think about creating a friendship circle, it was already there.

Could I return to Auckland I asked myself? The traffic, the flooding, the frenetic rushing everywhere, the lack of serenity and solitude I had yearned for 10 years ago?

The reality was that I lived with my husband, who had come with me on the Far North journey, and my 91-year-old father, whose most commonly expressed sentiment is how lucky he is to have his little cottage in the north. He is living his dream life.

I started heading to the city more often. I hung out with the kids regularly and was actually available to look after our grandchildren when their parents wanted to have some time away. To be that person who sleeps in the house and gets the kids off to school and plays with her toddler granddaughter.

I started talking to our kids about the possibility of returning to our house we had rented out and spending less time in the north.

The response was overwhelming. I felt that we may possibly have had the equivalent of an intervention.

Perhaps it was time to take Rose Anne’s advice when she says, “The important thing is to put as much effort into building your friendships as you do to choosing your foods.”

I’m very particular about what I eat, making sure it’s the best quality it can be but now it seems I need to prioritise social activities and activate my friendships that have been paused while I live in the middle of nowhere walking the dogs on the beach every day, eating out of my salad garden, picking fruit in my orchard and trying not to feel lonely.

If I want to age well, I need to get social again and I can feel myself trying to do that.

Recently, in Wellington visiting my youngest daughter we went to a play and in the foyer, I noticed this woman and thought I knew her. She did the same thing and we spent a good 10 minutes working out that we didn’t know each other and what’s more I didn’t really want to know her when she said “perhaps we met at the Parliament protests?” I rushed back to the safety of my seat in the theatre.

“I think I just tried to make a new friend and failed miserably,” I whispered to my husband.

“We need to get you back to Auckland don’t we?” he replied.

Plans are being made but not before I work out how to keep my dad here happily and well looked after. I remember watching a news item about Helen Clark years ago where she pulled open a chest freezer lid to reveal hundreds of meals she had made and stored in leftover margarine cartons while her 90-year-old dad beamed with pride.

We have a chest freezer. We can cook. We can freeze. My father is delighted at the prospect, as well as getting him a regular carer and my brother has offered to come and check on him when we’re not there.

One of my friends I have managed to keep in touch with told me recently that my move north was because at the time I was burned out. Which is probably quite accurate as my career was quite full on from the age of 19 onwards.

When I was at my busiest I used to fantasise about getting in my car and driving to the airport where I would hand over my credit card and say “book me on the next flight out of here”.

“That is what is commonly known as burn out fantasy,” my friend told me.

When I told her that we were thinking of moving back to the city but not for a few months she laughed for a good five minutes.

“You are such an impulsive person that sitting on your hands for that long unable to get going will probably kill you.”

She’s not wrong. My next column will probably be about learning how to be patient.

*Rose Anne Kenny is the author of Age Proof: The New Science of Living a Longer and Healthier Life.

Loneliness tips:

  1. It is not about the quantity of friendships but the quality. If you’re keeping up a friendship with someone who annoys you, limit time with them or walk away. Toxic friendships or family members will stimulate stress hormones, which are not good for you.
  2. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have lots of friends online. Online is okay but we have spent thousands of years engaging with each other face to face and reading each other’s body language so put your phones away when you are with your friends.
  3. Do things you enjoy with other people, not alone. You might do yoga alone but join a class and you will immediately feel the benefits.
  4. Do something creative with other people – a painting class, a choir, a knitting group.
  5. Join a book club. Personally, I would hate to be sitting in a book club and have someone disagree with me so I’m probably going to go for a knitting club.
  6. Ring somebody. We tend to text a lot these days but having a good long conversation with a friend on the phone is better for you. You should never need an excuse to ring but if you feel you do say you were just thinking of them. I have a lot of dreams so all of my friends are used to me telling them what they did in my dreams!
  7. Don’t be afraid to reactivate old friendships that may have petered out. I have on my list three friends who I used to see a lot of who now live overseas but that doesn’t mean we can’t still talk on the phone.
  8. Seek out new friends. If you meet someone you like don’t be afraid to follow up and ask them out for coffee. Sometimes they won’t get back to you but sometimes they will, and it could be the start of a really nice friendship.
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