Over the past 30 years I have personally witnessed as hundreds of people over the age of 70 have enrolled in The Freedom Model System at our residential retreats. For many of them, alcohol was their drug of choice, and most explained that loneliness became their reason for getting lost in their alcohol habit. As we age, the loss of loved ones becomes more commonplace, and the moving on of our adult children also becomes a reality for many in their senior years. Loneliness can be very real and frankly, it can fuel a deep sense of boredom and depression.
At our Executive Retreat where our age demographic tends to be older, that last statement is made on a regular basis; “I got bored after I retired, and I slowly fell into the habit of drinking until I passed out every night.” This statement, or some variation of it, was, and is, quite common. The pattern goes like this; a busy person retires or has some life altering event that changes the trajectory of their life. Then after this event (whether it be retirement, a sickness that slows them down or stops them from being able to work or play, or the person is so successful they no longer need to work and they end up losing focus on their sense of purpose that keeps them engaged with others) they begin drinking more. This slowly becomes more habitual, and then the physical ramifications begin to show up: stomach trouble, liver issues, panic attacks with no real explanation, and intense loneliness. Believe it or not, it is not the physical ailments from drinking that are usually the catalyst for an elderly person to call us for help. It’s the loneliness.
Loneliness – A Catalyst for Change
Like so many of life’s challenges, loneliness is changeable – even in the elderly. At the retreat, we usually address the individual’s preference for drinking first, as that simply makes sense. It’s fairly difficult to eliminate loneliness for the long haul if the person insists on continuing to drink heavily and consistently in the future. However, the person usually initially responds to our early lessons with, “Well if I wasn’t lonely I wouldn’t drink so much.” A counter argument might be “Maybe if you didn’t drink so much, you would not be as lonely.” Both are true, but here is why we prioritize the booze issue first. Whether the person we are helping is at one of our retreats, or is taking lessons from home via our Private Instruction Course, we do not need to address the loneliness issue on the front end because temporarily it is abated to a certain degree because of our participation with that individual. So initially, we have a temporary solution to loneliness with our presence in their life. However, we are not oblivious to the reality that this person will need to move on past the Freedom Model experience at the retreat or elsewhere, and then address the loneliness issue for their long-term future stability.
An amazing thing happens when a guest of ours understands the three legs of The Freedom Model, them being: free will, the Positive Drive Principle, and personal autonomy. Over the course of their lessons, they begin to understand that they can choose a new path – this is free will. Then they gain the understanding that their choices are motivated by a desire for greater happiness and the benefits they gain in making these new life changes. This is the Positive Drive Principle in action. In the process of the guest gaining an understanding that they drink because at some fundamental level they choose it based on the benefits they believe they are getting from it, the sense of hopelessness begins to fade, and a sense of self-empowerment takes hold. They know they are choosing to drink heavily and that this choice can change for the better. Simply put, they realize they can choose better for themselves, and that they have been making choices all along – even the choice to drink and be lonely. Once this understanding takes hold, it becomes quite easy to decide to make new choices based on not being lonely and not continuing to drink so heavily.
In this population, the drinking is literally physically killing them. To find that they can actually move past their alcohol habit with ease, and that they do not have to make that change by being beholden to a 12 step recovery model or the need for endless therapy, that person begins to naturally transform. They embrace their ability to choose (free will), and their ability to choose drinking options they enjoy more than their old habit of heavy use. They might abstain or they might moderate, but they choose the new option because they will be happier making the change – they knowingly embrace their expression of their Positive Drive Principle. This mental transformation is profound and exciting. They become free of their alcohol issue.
Beyond their once seemingly hopeless addiction to alcohol, loneliness is their second issue to be addressed. Once they have the metamorphosis of transforming their feelings of hopelessness in regards to drinking to feelings of moving past their drinking habit, they begin to know that anything else in their life is possible. That is when the light bulb turns on.
There is the old saying – it’s not over, ‘till it’s over. Nothing is more appropriately told to a person in the doldrums of the senior years than that ancient truism. When an elderly person becomes a heavy, consistent drinker, possibilities that once seemed real, fade into the bottle. It’s a tough place to be. In essence they are just waiting for the end. But if the sense of possibility is rekindled by their realization that they can move past the one problem they thought had them down for the count – alcohol – then the possibility that they can find avenues out of loneliness is usually their next goal.
Linda (not her real name) was 78 years old when she attended the retreat. She was drinking 2 bottles of wine a day, had cirrhosis, and lived alone because her adult children and her grand children had all but stopped coming to her home for visits. They did not want to be around a “drunk” they said. Linda had grown terribly lonely and depressed. She called me on our help line late one night in 2006. I asked her what was the one goal in her life she had always wanted to achieve, but never had? She explained that she was a good cook, and had always wanted to go to college and become a chef, but that it was too late for that now. Nonetheless, we discussed that for a bit. Over the course of the next few weeks she made the arrangements to attend the retreat and had a massive shift in her way of looking at alcohol and the role it played in her life after she had completed the coursework during her stay. She decided it best to abstain when she returned home rather than moderate because of the liver issues she was struggling with. She returned home sober and wondering what was next for her life.
A few days prior to this, before she had left to go home, I told her Presenter to discuss her goal to be a chef. Then, three days later, on her last day at the retreat, I went up to say goodbye to her. We said our goodbyes and I didn’t hear from her until a year and a half later.
I received a card in the mail from Linda. It said, “Mark, Thank you…I am the oldest person to have graduated from (college name) here in (state) at 80 years old. I’m a chef! And no, I’m not lonely anymore! Again, thank you…”
Out of all the correspondence I’ve collected throughout my 30 years of being a part of The Freedom Model, that one card meant the most. Her life expanded and blossomed in the last 2 years of her life. She had all the reasons in the world to quit – but as they say, she knew it wasn’t over, until it was truly over. She passed on at 82, sober and with her family close by. Had it not been for her understanding that she could be happier with the change, her life would have stayed on the same miserable trajectory. A little understanding coupled with some courage gave her bookend of life a happy ending.
While not everyone that is lonely will gain their family’s love back, making personal changes based on becoming happier will cause your life to expand naturally. It’s simply a matter of deciding to make a change, and carrying out that change based on positive action, not the fear of consequences. Linda had a desire to be a chef. This brought her in contact with many people, including her family. Had her family continued to reject her, she still would have been in a happier place than sitting alone and dying with a bottle of wine in her hand. And in the end, that is what mattered most.