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Isolation --The Silent Killer
(Dying Alone in America)
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October 1, 2008, last updated December 13, 2012
By Susan M. Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

Increasing numbers of Americans are dying alone. In big
cities and in small towns, across all races and income
classes. Here are some of their stories.

Like most Americans, residents in the quiet middle class
neighborhood of Hampton Bays, New York, were not overly
concerned when they hadn't seen 70-year old Vincenzo
Ricardo for a while.  Life had too many other everyday
distractions --going to work, juggling childcare and jobs,
paying bills.

Maybe it was the overwhelming normalcy of life that
allowed Vincenzo's absence to go unnoticed for so long.  

"The word going around was that he was in a home,"
neighbor Pat Boyle told Newsday.

But on February 27, 2007, police responded to a report
from a neighbor to check on a burst water pipe in Mr.
Ricardo's home. The neighbor--who had noticed a drop in
water pressure at his own home ---made the call that sent
police finally out to check on what was going on at the
home of Mr. Ricardo,  down the long driveway, to the house
set back too far for neighbors to see from the road.

There, they found the mummified body of 70-year old
Vicenzo Ricardo, sitting upright in a chair, in front of  the
blinking television set, where he had apparently died,
several years earlier.   The coroner said he hadn't been
heard from since December 2005, and nobody sounded the
alarm. Mail had piled up, but after a while,  it had stopped
being delivered.

Why hadn't his death been noticed?  Why wasn't his
absence noticed for so long?

The answer is the hidden scourge afflicting millions of
Americans and growing numbers of people in developed
societies around the world ---isolation.  

Here's another example, this one proving that isolation is an
equal-opportunity killer.  Have you ever heard of a woman
named Juanita Goggins?  Juanita Goggins used to be a
United States Congresswoman from South Carolina. She
made history in 1972, becoming the first Black women
elected to the U.S. Congress from South Carolina. She
wrote pioneering legislation on women's rights and
education.  In March of 2010, neighbors found the body of
74  year-old Juanita Goggins in her home on a quiet road in
South Carlonia. She had frozen to death.

Wrapped in several layers of sweaters, Juanita Scoggins
froze to death. Her electricity had been turned off days
earlier for non-payment in the middle of an unusual cold
snap. Since she had retired from Congress, Goggins had
gradually retreated from life, turning away people at the
door, receiving few freinds. Neighbors only interacted with
her from a diatance, exhanging an occasional wave. Her
only son lived in another state and saw his mother maybe
once a year.

This pioneer died alone, her body discovered a week after
her death, in a cold home, isolated from life. What
happened? How could a woman once so engaged in life die
in this manner?

We live in isolation.  During the last century, the structure of
our lives changed cataclysmically, from family units, often
three generations living together, to smaller, so-called
"nuclear" family units of spouses and children.  

The elderly have been moved off-range, to down-sized
apartments, living independent of the other family
members, or to nursing homes.  

Our electronic world makes it easier to stay in touch but it
also makes it easier to sink deeper into isolation. The same
computer screen that lets us connect to friends via e-mail
also lets us spend hours away from face-to-face human
contact.  Our checks are deposited electronically. Our bills
are paid electronically and automatically. No need for us to
intervene. No need for anyone to get involved.

Isolation has become the norm. Often parents and grown
children live in different towns or different states, making it
impossible to keep tabs on each other -- a dangerous state
of affairs as we age.  In the case of Mr. Ricardo, his wife
had died years earlier.  He had no other family nearby.  Like
many of us, he lived as an island.

This development does not bode well for the growing
numbers of Baby Boomers moving into the ranks of the
elderly.  Isolation, as may have been the case with Mr.
Ricardo and Congresswoman Goggins, literally kills.

Isolated in our homes, we lose precious minutes receiving
help when we have a medical crisis such as a stroke or
heart attack. We are less likely to keep medical

Equally important, isolation exacts an emotional death.
Studies of animals and humans have shown that social
isolation is linked to depression and other forms of
emotional and mental illness and dysfunction.  According to
the author of one study in 2007 by the UIC Psychiatric
Institute, Dr. Erminio Costa, "social isolation in both animals
and humans can be responsible for a range of psychological
effects, including anxiety, aggression and memory

Isolated lives lead to
depression. Isolation leads to anxiety.
Isolation is dangerous to your emotional and physical

Loneliness and Isolation Makes You Age Faster

In 2012, a team of researchers led by Dr. Perissinnotto at
the University of California studied 71 elderly men and
women to try to determine how many of them were lonely
and how that loneliness affected their health. A total of
43% of the group reported feeling "lonely"  --meaning they
felt left out, lacking in companionship or isolated --and this
group showed the highest rates of physical decline, decline
in being able to move, decline in being able to use their
upper bodies and decline in their ability to climb. In effect,
loneliness and isolation appeared to make them age faster.
(Read more about
10 ways to become more active.)

Many experts now recommend that we get at least 5 social
interactions each day. Those 5 social contacts can include
phone calls, of course, but we should strive to get at least 5
face-to-face human contacts, if possible.  

Here is my prescription for reducing the isolation in our

1. Talk to your neighbors.

2. Call in every now and then to a radio talk show.

3. Respond to e-mail and write new e-mails to friends and
acquaintances, every day.

4. Join a group that shares an interest. Like dancing? See if
the local Y has a class. Like painting? Join a class rather
than always painting alone. Like singing? Add your voice to
a choir. Well, you get the picture.

5. Go to a local church service or community service group
(Meals on Wheels, Red Cross, Salvation Army, food shelter)
at least once monthly.

6. Volunteer to read to the bedridden at the local hospital.

7. Work. Work at something you enjoy, even if you are
lucky enough not to have to work for financial reasons.

8. Add Your 2 cents. Give your opinion.
Add your story. Tell
people of the journey of your life.

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