For the young and the agile, winter in Vermont means heading to the ski slopes or crisscrossing white fields, donning snowshoes or silver skates. But for many older Vermonters or anyone with mobility problems, winter can be more of a challenge than a game. Homes are shuttered, life moves indoors and social connections go dormant.
A growing number of older people are experiencing a widespread epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Nationwide, an estimated 8 million adults over age 50 are affected by it and may suffer a wide-range of health problems from heart and immune disease to depression, dementia and Alzheimer's. Loneliness can increase the risk of death by nearly 30 percent. It is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Yet help isn't always a complicated remedy. It's a matter of simple things - small kindnesses - like maintaining bonds or creating new ones with members of our communities; inviting an older neighbor to dinner, offering a ride to the store or help with small chores.
The National Association of Agencies on Aging and AARP have both recently launched campaigns to raise awareness of social isolation and loneliness in older Americans. And in the UK, November is recognized as a time to encourage people to become more aware of vulnerable neighbors and family members.
Like nearly 27,000 Vermonters over the age of 60, I too live alone. In the past year, I've developed mobility problems and I understand how the world can close in around you when walking becomes difficult, how easily you can become discouraged. Especially this year, I have an apprehension of winter, and worry how I’ll make it to my car, take out the trash or get the mail.
But I have a strong support network of friends and family, and with their aid and encouragement I won't succumb to isolation and loneliness. But I'll also look around me for others who may not have such extensive resources. And I’ll offer help to a neighbor struggling on her own with health problems, and be more diligent about keeping in touch with elderly housebound friends.
Long ago, the poet John Donne said that none of us are islands, "entire until ourselves". We need each other, because no matter what our age, it takes a village for all of us to thrive.