My dad's bored and lonely. How do I fix it?
September 12, 2017 10:32 AM   Subscribe

My mother died back in 2011, after a period of prolonged illness. My siblings and I have all moved out. But this leaves my father rattling around this big old house by himself.

I know he's bored and lonely, but I don't know how to fix it. He lives a train ride from London, UK, so he has lots of culture on his doorstep. He doesn't have many friends in the area, and I get the feeling that while he was working all of his socialising was with work friends. Now that he and they are retired, he doesn't see them very often.

I've suggested he write, and put together a simple blog for him, but he doesn't seem interested. Likewise with societies and groups; he once did a painting class but didn't like the people.

I see him pretty often, but I get the feeling it's not enough, and often when I do see him he just wants to complain about the same old things. How can I help him find a sense of purpose and belonging now that he's alone?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You very likely can't. If he feels the need of a sense of purpose and belonging, he can try to find one, but he probably won't. My father was the same way after my mother died, and he was pretty much bored and lonely till he died. Old age is tough, and old age alone is tougher. I applaud you for wanting to do something about it, and it's fine if you want to suggest the occasional idea for improving things, but probably the best thing you can do is keep in touch and visit him now and then (and maybe get him away from home for an occasional outing). But try not to feel too frustrated about it, because that will just lead to him feeling pressured. Do what you can, but try to let go of as much of the sense of responsibility as you can. It's his life, and only he can do anything about it.
posted by languagehat at 10:45 AM on September 12, 2017 [12 favorites]

I have a loved one in a similar situation as well, so my sympathies. I'm eager to see if anyone has any actionable suggestions.

The only thing I can contribute to this thread is an anecdote I once heard: A man asks his aging relative why doesn't she make more friends. She says "I don't have enough time."

He says, "What do you mean, you're retired, you don't have a job, your kids are grown, your obligations are at a minimum, what do you mean you don't have enough time?"

"I need years, decades," she replies -- and then he realizes what she means. It takes years to make friends, and a sense of purpose and belonging too.

I'm not sure what you do in such a situation -- just plunge ahead with the confidence you'll have that time?
posted by Borborygmus at 10:54 AM on September 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

You can't do more than he is willing to do but here are few ideas if he is still healthy enough to get around on his own -

He sounds like of depressed which means that it is hard for him to think of things worth doing and then follow through. The more specific your suggestions the better although you also need to be prepared to put ideas out there and then drop them without nagging if he doesn't want to do it.

#1 Volunteer work - doing something that needs to be done is very powerful. The problem is that you need to be able to suggest things that fit both his ability and his interests and then find a way for him to put it into action.

#2 Competitive games that he is already familiar with (the classics are bridge, chess and cribbage) that give him a mental work out and allow him to interact with others without having to be friendly.

#3 the local senior center - although is most likely to be rejected if he doesn't like dealing with people he doesn't already know.
posted by metahawk at 10:56 AM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

One more thing - if he has grandchildren that need him - driving them places, attending sporting events, tutoring them in something he knows can be amazing but only a few families have that as an option.
posted by metahawk at 10:58 AM on September 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

I sympathise. My dad was the same, lost after my mother died. At the time I had no clue how to help, but now what I'd do is make plans for future events such as trips or outings together. I think the base of the problem is that when one's partner is gone there's nothing much to look forward to, so focus on replacing that. You can't change him but you can give him things to anticipate the enjoyment of.
posted by anadem at 10:58 AM on September 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

Is he interested in getting a pet? Obviously a very bad idea if he's not up for it but a life-saver if he is. I read an article about a senior center in the UK that had a hen house on site - it was extremely popular with the men there.
posted by metahawk at 10:59 AM on September 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

Is there anything you "need" him to do for you? Like maybe you have an old appliance sitting around that doesn't work that he could fix for you? Or maybe someone in the neighborhood could use a hand? I think that what Borborygmus is probably true - he's not likely to go out and find new friends. But feeling useful is such a great feeling and if you could help him with that, man, that would be nice. If he's at home alone but working on something for you or one of the grandkids, that's just as good as being with someone sometimes.

Also, what about neighbors? Could you organize a meal and invite them over on a semi-regular basis? Then they'd get to know him and even if it just translates to saying hello and chatting for a few minutes the next time they're outside together, that would be nice.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:00 AM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

It a difficult problem and I have no solution, but I haven't met anyone that wasn't into their fit bit for at least a little while. Maybe you could get one, too and link up their fitbit friend page.

Does he enjoy travel at all? Maybe every few months you could ask him to plan a day together or even an overnight.
posted by beccaj at 11:01 AM on September 12, 2017

I don't know the regulatory situation, but is he comfortable enough with web interfaces to run an Airbnb?
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:07 AM on September 12, 2017

How old is your dad? How is is health?

Even if he is really old, say over 85, he can still benefit from going to a gym and getting some exercise. He sounds depressed and exercise might alleviate that and improve his outlook and at least keep him healthier.

Does he want to stay in his big old house? Could he be persuaded to rent it out and move into something smaller closer to centers of activity? Do you or any of your siblings have a growing family that needs his big house?

Does he like dogs? They require venturing out into the world and interacting with other dog owners.

Can he do some volunteering?

My 94 year old neighbor here in the US loves going to the local senior center a couple of times week for various social events and classes. Her husband would rather stay home and watch football on tv, but sometimes he accompanies her and watches tv with the other old guys. I think men find it harder to adjust to retirement and widowhood than women. Perhaps your father has a senior center like ours nearby.

What do your siblings think? If all of you live close enough maybe you could agree to all get together with him once a month to remind him that he is still part of a family. There may be strength in numbers if you all agree to help get him out of his shell. I've watched my neighbors' four daughters come together to effect needed changes in their parents lives. They got the old man, who is almost 98, to stop driving.

Good luck, keep visiting.
posted by mareli at 11:08 AM on September 12, 2017

is there any way he could live closer to you and be more a part of your life? My mom came to live with me last year and it has made all the difference in the world for her - making up for the... changes wrought by the move in my life entirely.

Also, seconding the idea of a pet. If he's not physically capable of walking a dog (which would be the ideal), even a cat or two (so they're more socialized) would at least be something.
posted by lemniskate at 11:18 AM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing voluneering, senior center, senior swimming, classes, etc.

Give him a subscription to ask.mefi.

Show him the 0.00000001% of the web that isn't crap. Especially preserving stuff from his generation and before. Search up Youtube for the top songs of the year that he was 20. Restoring a car that's the same model as his first car.

You and he each watch the same 5 family friendly short vids each day, so you can say "Did you see that cat howling like a dog?"
posted by at at 11:20 AM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

My dad is 83 and my mom died in 2005. Dad has no interest in clubs or meetings or groups (apparently they're for old people and the beige brigade) but he has gone out every day - and I mean every day - to the same cafe for coffee and toast and a gossip with the staff and regular customers. Is there somewhere near your dad that he could visit on a regular basis? He'll soon start to get to know people just by being in the same place daily.

Also, I got into the habit of ringing him every evening, which doesn't take much time but allows me to feel less guilty about not seeing him more often. I know he's missing mom and hates being alone and lonely, and is also depressed, but he's getting by ok at the moment.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 11:24 AM on September 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Dunno if this is you're dad's personality, but if he's handy at all there's the UK Men's Shed's Association. They're group workspaces where you can fix and build stuff. Don't have to talk to anybody, but it can be a good way to build friendships in a low-key unforced way.
posted by Diablevert at 11:32 AM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Does he cook or bake? Maybe get him a couple of good books to suit his level and a box of ingredients then invite yourselves round to be guinea pigs.

Also, dog walking and volunteering are both such great ways of getting out of the house and interacting with people.

Does his local library need volunteer staff? A neighbour of ours has found her true calling by bossing leading her volunteer colleagues at our village library since funding was removed and it's a joy to have a library that otherwise would have shut down.
posted by humph at 11:39 AM on September 12, 2017

A dog is so great for people in this situation, if he has any openness to that. I have a relative who swears that a dog "saved her life" during a rough period.
posted by Mid at 11:43 AM on September 12, 2017

Does he like to read? My dad meets up once a month with a small group of other retired men from his professional circles. They're all retired lawyers and government people, so they read books about government and history and use those as an onramp for having the same sorts of arguments and discussions they used to have at work. And they often continue those discussions over email throughout the month. He likes at a lot. He's always telling me about what they're reading and talking about.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:46 AM on September 12, 2017

I came in to say Men's Sheds too. I'm not sure if they are all affiliated to the UK association, so may be worth Googling or talking to Age UK locally if you can't find one via Diablevert's link. Some Maker groups also tend towards older men.

Nthing volunteering. Might also be worth considering getting involved in research trials - for instance, my father is in an Alzheimer's trial of Tai Chi. Doing something worthwhile + getting out of the house. He is also currently being assessed as a volunteer worker with Alzheimer's groups - that's through the Alzheimer's association.

Also, projects - eg going to see all the examples of x, researching local history, makign a chronology of his life. Then he could write about some of this - might need something specific to write about rather than just the suggestion of writing? Does he have any expertise that local groups might be interested in - for instance, did he work in an industry about which someone might be researching the history?

An elderly relative also in a large house has gained company by renting out rooms, though I think that is a bit of a mixed blessing - some family are worried he may be being financially exploited by his lodgers.
posted by paduasoy at 11:49 AM on September 12, 2017

This may or may not help, because it is very specialized, but I'm a writer and journalist, and during the last decade's of my Dad's life, I made him my informal research assistant. He liked working on projects, he gained (very rapidly, actually!) internet skills, and it brought us closer together.
posted by soulbarn at 11:59 AM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

According to a thing I recently read, but can't find, older men have a harder time making new friends. So, whatever he did before to have a social life, maybe he forgot. If he has any skills, someone would like them. I talked to an old guy having a great time making wooden toys from scrap wood and donating them to kids. Dog-walking, a garden plot of his own, or adopting some neglected bit of dirt in his town. In the US, lots of old guys and more than a few old women hang out at McDonalds, drink coffee, read the paper and visit. Most McDonalds' seem to encourage it and it seems to be a good social opportunity. If he can walk to a cafe, all the better.

What did he like to do earlier in life? People buy and fix up little campers or vardos and travel all over. At 57, I bought a minivan, put my camping gear in, and toured the US; it was a great time. People get dogs and then walk them and have a companion. Model airplanes, a drone camera, knitting. Dancing is an exceptional activity because it is physically active and social.

Dating. He'll think he's over it, not attractive, etc., but old people date and have lots of fun.

The suggestion to send links to things that are interesting, funny, etc., so you have a topic to discuss is a good one. Links to places on the web where he might find a little community.

And, ask him. Dad, you seem bored and not very happy. Is there anything I can do to help? Yeah geezer males don't make that easy, but try. He might be really depressed, or he might just need a bit of a nudge to go ahead and build a miniature train setup all over the yard.
posted by theora55 at 11:59 AM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Does he have an old hobby? He can take it and start a small business with it. Say selling some woodworking on Etsy or old records at the swap meet. Something that will give him deadlines, accountability and structure, even if it doesn't make any money. People have that their whole lives and can tend to get lost without them. It could be something easy and fun.
posted by Vaike at 12:10 PM on September 12, 2017

I know you said he is a train ride from London, but depending on the length of the train ride, that still might seem daunting to him, given his state of mind.

Is there any chance he can sell the house, then use the proceeds to move into an apartment in London, or at least closer to London? Might that make it more likely that he would get out and about?
posted by merejane at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2017

Big house and close to London? Could he use a housemate or student - a friend's kid starting out on their own?
posted by quercus23 at 2:38 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

These are programs that put together elderly English speakers with students who wish to study English as a second language. All you need is Skype and an internet connection. Sessions are free-form chats to practice conversational skills. A lot of elderly people find these appealing because there is a sense of purpose, and they get to socialize with young people.
posted by rada at 3:24 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

It may sound stereotypical for an older man, but what about him taking on an allotment, if there are any available close to him? He doesn't have to be brilliant at gardening/growing - I stuck strictly to easy stuff on the one I used to co-own - and there's usually a sense of community between plot holders on the same patch, even if he only wants to engage with that on a low-key level.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 3:24 PM on September 12, 2017

Schools often need reading "tutors" for younger children, who either read to the child, or listen to the child read (depending on age). All it takes is patience and a willingness to show up regularly. Especially in high-poverty areas where the parents may not be English-language literate, or the adults in the household may not be around much because they're working, it's really important that kids get personal reading attention, and that's tough in a big classroom. That's something he could do that's really needed and would get him out of the house regularly and get him in touch with other adults (teachers, volunteers) and kids. And kids ADORE having "reading grandpas."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:43 PM on September 12, 2017

Could you get him a dog? Dogs need to be walked and are good companions - maybe an older dog that is mellow and well-behaved?
posted by Toddles at 7:55 PM on September 12, 2017

Is your dad fit enough to travel? That's what my parents are doing now that they're retired and their adult children are halfway across the world from them. Hell they're in Dubai right now after a whirlwind Europe trip.
posted by divabat at 12:31 AM on September 13, 2017

There are senior/elderly companions who volunteer to visit people like your dad who need some extra company. It can come with home health, but doesn't need too.

It's tricky to find things that work and what works for one won't work for another. My MIL thought she'd hate a apartment complex for seniors, but she loved all of the socializing she got to do (and moved in with a older gentleman 6 weeks later! )

Most important things to do are talk, ask questions and provide resources. Ask your dad what he wants to do, keep talking and provide as many opportunities as you can. If he wants to find something, he will find it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:22 AM on September 13, 2017

Agreeing with all the other answerers that ultimately, this is your dad's decision to make. But in the spirit of giving you suggestions for options he might be amenable to at some point, University of the Third Age is great. I work a lot with U3A groups.

They're all self run, there's less "for the elderly" than Age UK can sometimes have. But it does mean they're all different, so you will need to check out the local ones (and their web presence is often poor). They all have a range of groups from political discussion groups, sports, walking groups, language classes, talks, arts and crafts, almost anything goes. The range of what they do is huge, they often have hundreds of members.

I want to join! But I can't because I'm only 39...
posted by Helga-woo at 6:32 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

My mum died in 2005 and dad is still alone now. He does voluntary work at a charity bookshop a few times a week and is in a model engineering club.

You need to work out if you're worried because HE is actually lonely or because YOU would be lonely in his place. I tried several times to enrich my dads life and activities and ultimately he didn't want or need my help. He was completely satisfied as things were.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 3:46 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

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