For Women, Age Often Brings Isolation

Most elderly women today have never worked outside the home, while most of their daughters did or still do. Members of these two generations approach the question of how to spend their days with very different skill sets.

An elderly woman may have successfully navigated life as a mother, wife and guardian of home and hearth. But liberation from those daily responsibilities later in life can be disorienting, said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.

Too many women who have lived a circumscribed life, newness doesn’t always appeal, not after decades of a familiar and satisfying routine. Men who spent their lives in the workplace are familiar with new social situations and are less likely to feel unease, she said. A woman whose life has had a narrow, if intense, focus is likely to have more trouble branching out.

But the smaller a person’s world, the greater the danger. “Individuals who live in isolation are more likely to be depressed, may be more likely to suffer from malnutrition and are separated from opportunities for socialization — cognitively stimulating activities and physical activities that are the hallmarks of healthy aging,” said Dr. Ronan Factora, a geriatrics specialist at the Center for Geriatric Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “Having and maintaining a robust social network as you age is one key feature of aging well.”

Where to begin? Blend the familiar and the new.

A child concerned about a mother’s isolation can start to help by recalling “hobbies or interests that they may have participated in prior to dedicating their lives to their families. Trying to bring those interests back may be easier than trying something completely new.

But at their core, suggestions about what to do next must respect a parent’s comfort level, even if that requires an adult child to adjust his or her expectations. A familiar face — an adult child’s, in all likelihood — can help an older woman make the transition to a new kind of social life. But it helps to start sooner than you might think is necessary. Be prepared to have your ideas rejected. Sometimes all you can do is offer opportunities. The more opportunities someone has to try something new, the more likely they are to engage. Take advantage of any glimmer of interest.

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