Marleen Brooks found a note waiting for her when she got to her home in Park Hills, Mo., one evening last year. She had never heard of Wanda Mills, but her heart broke when she read the handwritten plea.
“Would you consider to become my friend,” said the note from Mills. “I’m 90 years old — live alone and all my friends have passed away. I am so lonesome and scared. Please — I pray for some one.”
Brooks is a 37-year-old property manager and she had no idea this woman even existed, but the address was for a house across the street from her and just a couple of doors down. She didn’t know anyone even lived there.
The next day, Brooks and a friend took cupcakes and went to visit Mills. (See the photo below.) The friends spent about an hour with the older woman. They found out Mills had lived in the house for 51 years. Her husband was dead. Most of her remaining family was either dead or lived far away.
Living in the middle of a busy neighborhood, Mills was invisible — and lonely.
That was a year ago. Since then, Brooks started a Facebook group called Pen Pals for Seniors. (Here’s a Facebook link.) Close to a thousand letters have been written through the program for older folks who need someone to give them attention.
As for Mills, she moved to a nursing home last fall. Brooks still visits regularly, along with her husband and sons. Shortly after her move to the nursing home, Mills spoke to a Washington Post reporter about the change she has seen in the culture around her.
“Neighbors don’t neighbor like people used to,” Mills said. “Neighbors used to visit each other. But they don’t do that there. I don’t guess they do anywhere.”
I’ve thought a lot about this issue of modern loneliness. It’s a problem for a lot of folks, not just older people living alone. Structural changes in the modern world have changed everything about the way we interact with neighbors.
For most of human history, we lived around family and friends for life. But changes in the economy and in transportation have changed all of that. Most of us end up living a lot of different places — living among almost nobody we knew as we grew up.
Neighborhoods are more transient. Even in neighborhoods of homeowners, people come and go all the time. In neighborhoods with a lot of renters, things are even more temporary. Most people don’t really know each other.
My neighborhood is a mixed bag. I have a wonderful retired school teacher who lives across the street from me. When a tree fell on my fence a few weeks ago, her son volunteered to cut it for me. They’re great people.
There’s a nice young family on one side of me. Right now, there’s a vacant rental on the other side. (Until recently, there was a friendly young doctor and his nurse wife who lived there with their baby.)
But beyond that immediate area, I don’t know most of the people. I wave to a few others when I see them, but I wouldn’t know them if I saw them in person in a restaurant. We’re effectively strangers.
I don’t know what the answer is, because these structural changes to our culture are relatively new. The problem, though, is that I’m not sure many people even realize there’s a problem to be solved.
My observations suggest we have a real crisis of loneliness. I’ve heard other people talk about the same thing. But I don’t see anybody doing anything to change things.
Maybe a solution will involve restructuring neighborhoods. Maybe we need more of the sort of social organizations that could take the place of neighborhood churches which filled that role for so long in this country. (I don’t think neighborhood churches are coming back, unfortunately.)
There are a lot of people like Wanda Mills out there, but very few of them are going to write us notes asking for us to be their friends. Many of them are younger, too. There are lonely men and women who live in homes where they don’t really know each other. There are single people who live alone and wish they had people to spend time with. There are even people who spend time with others all the time — but who feel alienated because nobody really knows them.
The modern world can be a lonely place. Many millions of people all around us need to connect with us — and we need to connect with them. We just have no idea how to reach out to those rare people who can make us feel loved and understood and known.
Someone needs you — and you need that someone. Making that connection might be the biggest problem facing busy and struggling modern people who know that something is missing for them.