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Avoiding loneliness is a challenge for some older adults living on their own

Jo-Ann Spring looks just past the camera in a close profile photo. She's wearing a blue sweater and silver earrings.
Max Schulte
Jo-Ann Spring meets with her social worker, Lauren Baer, at her apartment in Webster to find a new dentist who takes her insurance. Baer has been helping Spring with various life transitions over the past six years.

In many parts of the world, older adults are likely to live with multiple generations of their families.

But not in the United States, according to a Pew Research Center study. It found that in the U.S., 27% of those who are 60 and older live alone.

Being alone does not necessarily equate with being lonely, just as time spent in the company of others is no guarantee of contentment. Anyone who has ever felt disconnected in a crowd can vouch for that.

But in certain circumstances — including those that are often linked to aging — solo living can contribute to social isolation.

Jo-Ann Spring, 76, has lived alone for the past several years in her Webster apartment. She moved there not long after her husband's death in 2018.

Jo-Ann Spring meets with her Social worker, Lauren Baer, at her apartment in Webster to find a new dentist that took her insurance. Baer has been working with Spring for six years to transition life events as Spring ages. (photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
Jo-Ann Spring meets with her Jewish Family Services social worker, Lauren Baer, at her apartment in Webster.

"It may be a little cluttered, but it's my domain," she said on a recent warm and bright afternoon. Spring seemed unaware of the beautiful weather because she remains indoors most of the time unless a van picks her up for a medical appointment.

Spring injured her leg in a car crash about 10 years ago.

"I see people way older than me and they walk and do stuff, and I can hardly walk," she said.

Even daily trips from her third-floor apartment to the lobby to pick up her mail are too difficult, so her neighbor does it for her.

"I've got Mary next door and Suzy down the hallway," she said. "If we get lonely, they come to visit me."

Spring's son, who lives with his family in Virginia, visits two or three times a year. But her most frequent visitors are a home care aide provided through Medicaid, and social worker Lauren Baer, an aging care management supervisor for Jewish Family Services. She's helped Spring through some big transitions in her life, including her move to the apartment.

"The hardest part, I must say, is the holidays because I'm always alone on the holidays," Spring said. "I put on the Christmas stories and that, but once in a while, I get really down."

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But with Baer's help, she's found some ways to deal with the loneliness.

One thing that seems to make a difference is her volunteer work with Lifespan's Silver Line program. About once a week, she talks on the phone with another senior who lives alone. She said it makes her feel less alone.

That's what the research says, too. A University of Michigan study found that volunteering not only fulfills a sense of purpose later in life, it also can alleviate loneliness, especially for those who volunteer more than 100 hours a year.

It makes sense to Baer, who understands the importance of her clients' need for reciprocal relationships with people other than their caretakers.

"It's a natural human thing, where people want to be able to share their gifts, their talents in some way and give back," she said.

A photo of Jo-Ann Spring's dog hangs on the bird cage in her livingroom. Both the bird and dog past away. Spring now has a robotic dog to keep her company. (photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
A photo of Jo-Ann Spring's dog hangs on a bird cage in her living room. Both the bird and dog have died, and Spring now has a robotic dog to keep her company.

Another study found that older adults who live alone were 36% less likely to feel lonely if they had a pet. Spring once owned a dog and a bird, but they both died, so Baer got her a robotic dog, who Spring named "Dundee."

With the dog — which looks like a golden retriever puppy — perched on her lap, Spring smiled as she asked if he loved her and got a "woof" in response.

Spring's apartment is part of an affordable senior living community. It differs from more traditional independent or assisted living settings in that there is no community dining room where residents eat meals together. There are also no coordinated social activities.

The advantage is the cost. Many people are edged out of senior living facilities because they can't afford to live there. The average monthly cost of assisted or independent living in the Rochester area was $3,775 in 2021. Spring's rent is limited to 30% of her income.

While she tries to make the best of her situation and said she is content with her life, you can see still some sadness in Spring's eyes.

"What happened to those golden years I expected? " she asked.

"I would have liked to have gone to Hawaii or gone on a cruise. That was my plan. It never happened, though."

She has a new plan now. When her home care aide, who visits a few times a week, comes to the apartment, she wants her to take her outside in a wheelchair.

"You know, feeling the breeze on your face ... it would be nice," Spring said.

She also enjoys drawing. Arthritis has made that difficult, so she's going to try using her non-dominant left hand. If that doesn't work, she hopes to find another hobby.

"I'm not gonna give up," she said. "I mean, once you give up, you go downhill."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.