Pat Higgs says she does not want to be burden on her family

For many people old age is not a time of reflection and contentment, but of fear and loneliness.

With shorter marriages and longer lives, more elderly people than ever are living alone, and a new report by Help the Aged suggests over one million of them say they often or always feel lonely.

For Pat Higgs, a 70-year-old pensioner from Hornchurch in Essex, what she fears most is that she will die and no-one will notice.

“Some days I could just sit here and cry,” she says, her voice breaking.

“I’m terrified that one of these days I’m going to die and they’re not going to find me for a week or so.”

Intense isolation

Mrs Higgs has been on her own since divorcing from her husband 30 years ago.

She has a son, but he lives in Australia with his children. Her daughter lives nearby, but Mrs Higgs says her daughter has a busy life, and in any case the two do not get on.

Her isolation has been intensified by severe arthritis and failing eyesight that has meant she cannot walk long distances and has had to relinquish her driving licence.

Despite the fact there is a bus stop a quarter of a mile away, her aching joints make the trip out into the world seem a daunting prospect.

The reality for Mrs Higgs is that she spends much of her time virtually housebound within a world shrunk by her disabilities.

“It’s lonely and it’s a lot of responsibility as well, because you have all the things to do to maintain your home, and when you’re getting old, you can’t even change a light bulb, and that’s when you feel at risk,” she says.

And like many people in her position she is reluctant to be a burden on those around her, even on her own children.

She says she talks on the phone with friends and family “now and again”, but adds: “They’re all busy, who wants to pour gloom on other people’s lives?”

Lost confidence

Mrs Higgs says she doesn’t begrudge her son’s decision to move away – as a parent she brought her children up to be independent and find their own way in the world.

And as for her daughter, she just says she “loves her dearly” and doesn’t want to risk straining the relationship any further.

She smiles and says: “Your children are only loaned to you aren’t they?”

According to Help the Aged, there are hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are as isolated as Mrs Higgs’.

The charity says nearly half a million pensioners only leave their houses once a week and a further 300,000 are entirely housebound.

Their report blames a variety of factors, including low incomes, a lack of local services – such a post offices – and the absence of opportunities to pursue hobbies.

Busy lives

Amy Swan of Help the Aged told the BBC: “A lot of people lose confidence. Some of them say the only person they see is the postman popping round.

“It’s very sad when you hear from somebody who literally has not been out of their house for a week, two weeks, a month even.

“Can you really imagine having that life? Trapped inside with nowhere to go?”

Ms Swan says there are projects run by Help the Aged and other organisations that reach out to old people living alone, but she also says there have been fundamental “changes to how our society works”.

Mrs Higgs has felt those changes for herself.

“Everybody’s busy trying to earn a living, even more so than when I was young,” she says.

“The world has just got smaller now, but people have got further away.”

For better or for worse, when you get married, you sign on for a life of sharing –bedsheets, bathroom space, cold germs. Moods, too, as it turns out. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that “emotional contagion,” the unconscious tendency to mimic the emotions of others, affects spousal health.

Couples may not realize that “for better or worse” may mean they will share their emotional states as well.

Heart bypass patients with neurotic and anxious spouses, for instance, were much more likely to be depressed 18 months after surgery — independent of their own personality — according to one study led by John M. Ruiz, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical psychology at Washington State University.

The findings are troubling because depression is known to put recovering cardiac patients at higher risk of further heart attacks and death.

Another study showed that hardening of the coronary arteries was more likely in wives when they — or their husbands — expressed hostility during fights.

As for how one catches a partner’s foul humor, the brain’s aptly named “mirror neurons” are to blame, says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and co-author of “Emotional Contagion.”

These neurons fire in response to other people’s actions and intentions, especially when you care about the individual. So if you see that your husband is anxious or depressed, you literally feel his pain. There are, however, a few ways to prevent spousal mood infection. What’s really going on in his head!


When he makes a nasty remark and you give it right back, you’re off to the races. You can avoid getting stuck in this loop by planning how you will respond to his negativity. One option is to walk away: Take a stroll around the block, go for a bike ride. Once you’re on your own, you can see how much your partner’s mood is really affecting you. If it’s substantial, you might schedule more alone time in your relationship.

Or ask him to exercise with you or visit a therapist (see “Play as a Team”) to try to improve his mood. If you’re the problem, leaving the premises when you feel a funk coming on is also a good way to keep him — and the marriage — healthy.

Let him see the light

His doldrums could be a symptom of seasonal affective disorder — yours too. If either of you is worse in the winter, cheerier when it’s sunny, try installing bright full-spectrum lighting.

Play as a Team

Demanding that he go to a shrink is often not an effective way to motivate him to get help, Cacioppo says. Suggesting that you see a couples therapist together may prove more successful.

Keep your spirits up

People who are content in their relationships are much less vulnerable to a spouse’s neuroticism, according to Ruiz’s research. On the flip side, in a happy marriage, one partner’s optimism may rub off on the other — an actual health benefit. Did someone say optimism? The good news is, you can catch that too.

By Kathyrn Matthews from “O, The Oprah Magazine” © 2008