LYME — Six years ago, Jo-Anne Mullen woke up in the hospital to her three sons telling her she could not return to life as she knew it. She suffered a stroke and a heart attack and although had planned to work another ten years at the Toyota dealership she loved, at 70 her sons thought the stressful job would be too much for her.
“I couldn’t work so naturally I couldn’t stay where I was because I couldn’t afford to do it,” Mullen said. “My son went and got a dumpster and everything was dumped and then when I finished rehab I came to live here with my son.”
Mullen moved from her home on Long Island to her son’s house in Lyme in June of 2013. Like many older adults whose family has moved far way, she was forced to leave her home and her friends behind when she could no longer live independently.
“Family size is smaller and the nuclear family is not geographically co-located the way it may have been 50 years ago,” said Dr. Kristina Zdanys, a geriatric psychiatrist at UConn Health Center. “So, it comes down to how independent the seniors are and if they need to rely on their children they may need to move and leave their lives behind, often bringing on social isolation or loneliness.”
For Mullen the move was, “horrid.”
“Where I lived everything was at your fingertips. There is a shopping center on every corner, south, east, west, north, it’s there for you. Movies and my friends and places to eat and everything was there,” Mullen said. “Then you come here, and it’s like, you don’t even have stores or eating places, everything is a long car ride away.”
The transition from suburban to rural living can be challenging at any age, but as a new retiree without any demands on her time Mullen found she could go days without seeing anyone except her son and the dogs.
“It was very difficult. You become anxious, bored, you don’t really know what to do,” Mullen said. Mullen missed New York and once she could drive again she took many trips back to her old home, saw her old friends, ate plenty of New York bagels. But when she was in Lyme it was almost unbearable.
“There is nobody on the street that I live, it’s like their house is their life,” Mullen said. “And the people, they are very close knit, so I’m kind of an outsider.”
It was Mullen’s granddaughter Alyssa who finally convinced her to try out the senior center, to go somewhere that maybe she could make friends who would be interested in joining her for a shopping trip or a night at the movies.
“Go here, she told me, have fun.”
At the senior center Mullen joined a tap-dancing class and the line dancing class. She found a few friends and learned that, unlike in New York, many more people are quite content to be at home.
“You need to make the initiative. If I don’t call someone, they’re not going to call me. Once I realized that I’ve been doing okay,” Mullen said. “You have to put your past behind you, it doesn’t happen right away, but you have to get where you came from and what you used to do out of your mind.”
Being around and engaged with others does not only make people like Mullen feel better, it can help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease according to new research, said Zdanys. But the prevention begins well before the onset of the disease.
“Social stimulation is important for everyone, it directly impacts brain health, it’s a kind of exercise for the brain,” Zdanys said. “For people who are socially active there is evidence that their risks of cognitive decline are lower.”
It isn’t only cognitive health that can be affected by social isolation and loneliness, self-care and diet both tend to decline as well.
“People don’t tend to make as complex meals. They might not have vegetables or protein anymore, which puts their heart health at risk as well as their brain,” Zdanys said. “There is evidence that those who are isolated or lonely do not sleep as well, their risk of heart disease increases and suicide rates go up.”
Zdanys said the primary treatment she gives people is helping them to find social connection in their day-to-day life. However, the social connections individuals have throughout life can make a difference in the development of dementia.
“It’s always important because people over time develop a cognitive reserve, you want the neurons in your brain to make as many connections as possible,” Zdanys said. “Those people who have been in school for 20 years are going to have more connection as well those who are very social.”
Although it was a difficult transition, Mullen said she feels lucky to have her family close by her now.
“If you have someone who will take care of you respectfully then you can do it. It will be okay,” Mullen said. “If someone is going to put you down, confine you and make it hard for you to feel comfortable that’s when it can be a problem.”
For now, Mullen said things are good.
“From 2013 to 2019 there definitely is a difference,” Mullen said. “I’m getting out more, not relying on so many people to take me places. I get my hair done every week and I spend a couple hours talking, they’re so nice to just let me stay and hang out. I’ve learned that people here really are friendly.”
She’s adjusting, getting used to her life in Connecticut. But if she ever lost the use of a car she isn’t sure what she would do.
“My girlfriend just lost the use of her car and it’s really not good,” Mullen said. Her friend is picked up on Sunday for church and another person stops by to take her grocery shopping on Tuesday, but other than that she’s stuck. “So, I went all the way down there and picked her up and she stayed with me here a couple of weeks and she told me it’s horrible not having a car. It’s absolutely horrible.”
For individuals like Mullen’s friend it is public transportation, their neighbors and the community as a whole that must be relied on in order to prevent feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
“It’s important for all of us to look out for each other, to check in on your neighbors. As a society we have a responsibility for one and another,” Zdanys said. “If someone is feeling lonely they should know that there are lots of opportunities. There is a lot of stigma attached to going to the senior center but people aren’t just playing bingo, there is a lot more going on than just that.”
This is the second part in a series of news stories on the topic of loneliness. Part one, “The Healthcare of Loneliness Across Southeastern Connecticut,” is here.