Lonely? You don't have to be
There was a story in our paper today about an 83-year-old woman who volunteers each day at an arts center.
"What's so special about that?" was my first thought when I glanced at the story. There are plenty of octogenarians who help hospitals, organizations or churches by doing volunteer work.
I've written many stories about noteworthy older volunteers. I think they are commendable as well as sorely needed. But most don't make newspaper headlines.
As I read the story about the woman who volunteers at the arts center, I found she did, indeed, have a story to tell as well as an important message to pass on.
Her message is this: You may have to be alone. But you don't have to be lonely.
Like many women her age, she built her life around her husband. After he retired, they did everything together. That's good and that's bad, as the woman learned after her husband died.
What she didn't realize until after her husband passed away was that she had no close friends, no one to go with her when she wanted company. Her husband was more than her best friend. He was her only close friend.
After months of sitting alone feeling sorry for herself, she saw a small blurb in the paper saying volunteers were needed at several community organizations. She's not all that active, but she knew she could answer the phone and sit at the front desk of the arts center.
The arts center is a big place bustling with people. "Just being around people cheered me up and made me feel better," said the volunteer.
When I read her story, the truth of her words resonated with me: We don't have to be lonely.
But many people are.
There were two specific times in my life when I knew the meaning of lonely. The first was when I moved to Palmerton where I knew absolutely no one. I had moved from my hometown where I knew everyone.
My husband was busy trying to prove himself in his new, demanding job while my kids were busy trying to fit in at a new school. I, for the most part, was alone all day.
So I did what so many people are advised to do I volunteered. My experience volunteering at our church kitchen wasn't warm and fuzzy. I was happy to stand at the sink and peel potatoes, just as I was directed to do, until another woman came along and told me off. "This is my job," she said. "I always do this."
I felt like a fifth wheel and never went back. But not all my experiences were like that. I did meet people and formed wonderful friendships from my other volunteer activities.
The loneliest time of my life was after my husband died. But I was lucky enough to have a support system of wonderful friends who helped me through an extremely difficult time.
Widowhood is a hard road to walk. It's made even more difficult because people don't remember to include widows in their activities.
If you live near someone who lost a spouse, ask her to go out with you for pizza, or invite her to a community happening. Both of you will benefit from it.
When I moved to Florida where I had no friends and no family, I had enough experience in life to know the remedy for loneliness: Go, go, go. Join, join, join.
I read the community section of the paper each day, making note of all activities open to the public. I went somewhere every day. Not all the activities worked out.
Let's face it. Not all groups are welcoming to outsiders. But joining some clubs gave me a wealth of friends.
Florida is a bit different because we are a state of transplants. Everyone is from somewhere else and few people are surrounded by generations of family. People for the most part are eager to make new friends and enjoy new experiences.
Before I was here for six months, I already had a new "family," a group of close friends that care about each other.
But I also meet a lot of lonely people. They complain that they have no friends and have nothing to do. But they don't push themselves to go new places.
"I can't go anywhere alone and I don't have anyone to go with," said one woman. I told her about our local senior center and gave her the name and phone number of another member who might be a buddy.
"Oh, I can't call a stranger," she said. "Tell her to call me."
Those who won't reach out to others will probably stay alone. But even those who try aren't successful every time.
My friend Jeanne is determined to enlarge her circle of friendship. She has done all the right things. She joined a popular club and exchanged phone numbers with some women she especially liked.
When she called one woman and asked her to get together for lunch, the woman said she was too busy with company. Not every flower blooms and not every friendship blossoms. But that shouldn't stop us from trying again.
Jeanne just volunteered at two more organizations and I know she will develop new friendships.
If you're sitting there feeling lonely, realize that the face in the mirror is the one with the power to change your life.
Ask someone to join you for lunch. Volunteer for a new group. Do something new.
Yes, it's hard. But being lonely is so much harder.