Fear of A Lonely Death

By Nancy Wurtzel

Last year, in the middle of summer, George Bell, a 73-year-old man died alone in his Queens, New York apartment.  His body wasn’t discovered for almost a week, and he may well have remained there longer if a neighbor, smelling a putrid odor, had not alerted police.

George Bell’s death and its aftermath was the subject of a poignant New York Times article “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” written by N. R. Kleinfield.  The story pieced together George Bell’s life, which had been filled with work, friends and activity in his younger years.  But as he got older, his world became smaller and he grew more isolated.  During his last years, George had lost contact with all family and almost all of his friends.

Also revealed were the stark realities of what happens when someone dies without family or good friends to decide what to do with their remains, belongings and estate.  In these cases, government agencies must step in to create closure.

In New York City, about 50,000 people die a year, although no statistics are kept on how many die alone.

“A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles,” writes Kleinfield. “No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables.”

The manner in which George Bell left this world struck an emotional chord with readers in New York City and beyond.  Within days, thousands left comments and shared the Timesarticle on social media. Many readers noted they feared they, too, would die alone.  Some readers even described George Bell’s fate as their greatest fear.

In the English language, there are terms for thousands of phobias but there is no specific word to describe the fear of dying alone.  However, as our population grays, this may change.

Take Japan, for example, the fastest-aging country on earth, where 23% of the population is age 65 or over.  The Japanese people call dying alone and not being found for a period of time, kodokushi, which literally translated means “lonely death.”

Why are more people concerned about a lonely death?

One reason may be that more individuals are living alone than ever before.

Generations of families used to live together for economic reasons.  Now, younger generations are getting married later in life while others marry and then divorce.  Some choose not to marry or have children at all.

Twenty-seven million Americans now reside in one-person households, up from 17 million in 1970.

In major cities like Atlanta, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle, as many as 40 percent of its citizens reside alone, and if you live in Manhattan, your chances of living in a single-occupant household are one in two.

When we are young, living solo has many perks, like the privacy to live how you want. Americans, especially, relish their independence and pride themselves on their individualism and self-reliance.  However, as we age, our relationships can become tenuous.  Family may not live close by. Friends are aging too, so they are less able to help when we need it.  The generations below are busy with jobs, families, friends and hobbies.

Before you know it, loneliness and isolation have set in and living alone may not seem like such a good idea after all.

There are some good options for living with others.

For those who want to maintain their personal space, such as an apartment, but still transition to a larger group environment, there is assisted living or senior housing.  Communal living arrangements are also beginning to catch on in places around the country, where like-minded people live together, perhaps in a large house, sharing costs and providing support for each other.

Others may still find these choices too confining, so they choose to ‘age in place’ by staying in their current homes.

No matter where a person decides to live, everyone can benefit from maintaining and expanding relationships with other people.  Here are some ideas on how to make that happen:

  1. Stay Engaged — Maintain contact with your friends and family and reach out to new people.  Keep busy and get out of the house by volunteering, taking classes, joining a book club, engaging with neighbors and keeping physically active.
  2. Practice Kindness – People gravitate toward those who practice kindness.  Being kind to others and yourself and you will reap huge benefits.
  3. Communicate – Stay in touch with relatives and friends by email, phone and social media.  If you are not online, then send cards and letters because everyone enjoys getting mail.  The act of reaching out to ease other’s loneliness can alleviate your own.
  4. Be Interested in Others – When you are only looking inward, you will miss opportunities to connect with others.  Remember, other people may be lonely too.
  5. Keep Learning – It’s amazing the connections a person can make when they undertake new challenges.  Learning at any age, be it in a classroom or in the real world, is good for the brain and the spirit.
  6. Get a Pet – Not only is a pet good company, but they can help you make connections with other pet owners.
  7. Talk About Your Emotions – Your feelings are legitimate, and your mental wellbeing matters.  A therapist, clergy or social worker may be a good sounding board to voicing your feelings and ultimately moving forward.

Improving the relationships in your life can help alleviate the fear of leaving this world without anyone knowing or caring.

If you still want more assurance against dying alone, the easiest and least expensive option is to set up a mutual system where a family member or friend makes contact with you daily.

There are also established “well-being check programs,” some of which are offered free of charge by communities or organizations.  These daily calls, either placed manually or by an automated system, are mainly for older individuals or the homebound.  If there is no answer or a problem is detected during the wellbeing check, then a designated relative or friend is contacted.

These services, whether free or for a nominal charge, help many people rest easier.

For those people who become ill and must be hospitalized, there is also a way to ensure you are not alone at the end of life.

Sandra Clarke, a nurse from Eugene, Oregon, started the No One Dies Alone (NODA) program in 2001. The NODA mission is simple: Volunteers stay with patients who are in the last hours of life, holding their hand, talking, playing music or just being witness to the person’s passage out of the world.

Clarke describes NODA as a program for elders who have outlived family and for others who are alone for various reasons, such as an accident away from home.

Ask your local hospital or care home if they have a NODA program in place.  If they don’t, then launch one.  This is the type of activity where you can give back to your community, make friends and ultimately make a huge difference.

Nancy Wurtzel, a frequent contributor to ThirdAge, is editor of the blog Dating Dementia. To read more of her work, click here.

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