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Beuna May Bugel: The teddy bear and the telephone

Pastor Stew Carlson

"The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old."—Pope Francis

My grandma was widowed at the young age of 50. My grandma, though, has never lacked for potential companionship.

When Grandma was 75, I traveled with her to California. While waiting for a rental car, Grandma struck up a friendship with a group of Marines. Pretty soon, Grandma and the Marines were having a grand-old time playing cards together with Grandma at the center of everyone's attention. As Grandma and I exited, she proceeds to turn to me and say: "I think they kind of liked me."

Even today, at 95, as a wheelchair user living in a nursing home, rarely does she meet anyone that she believes can resist her charms.

Grandma's experience is unique for seniors. People's social circles tend to shrink as they get older due to the deaths of those closest to them. Recently, I read Jonathan Rauch's book, "The Happiness Curve," which declared: "According to one estimate, the amount of money needed to 'compensate' statistically for lost marriage is on the order of an extra $100,000 a year."

Now, consider the grief involved with losing a partner with whom one has shared 40, 50 or even 60-plus happy years upon one's well-being.

Forming new relationships have all sorts of limiting factors from more limited driving access to hearing loss and declining mobility. Even well-meaning families fail due to other time commitments.

While I've tried to make time for Grandma in the five years she's lived in a care center, I've generally been able to see her a few hours a month due to driving distance.

Loneliness though is not merely emotional strain; it directly impacts one's physical health. Loneliness raises stress levels which have inflammatory effects over one's entire body. Among the potential negative consequences of inflammation include a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and even Alzheimer's.

The great certainty that I can state from my decade within the ministry is the number of aging adults whose greatest longing is increased connection. I've had congregation members tell me they come to church not on account of my oratory, but rather to shorten the days and chat over coffee hour. Similar socialization opportunities exist within groups like the North Shore Golden Agers.

Perhaps the most concrete advice that I could give to seniors is to consider the number of people around you in a similar place in life longing for an opportunity to get together. Consider making pacts with friends to call and check in on the well-being every morning of those who live alone.

One of the great benefits of senior living communities is that they bring such opportunities into proximity.

There is no greater investment that we can make to our well-being than investing in relationships with those near us. Last summer, I got the type of phone call that every pastor dreads. I was told that the only child of an elderly congregation member had died unexpectedly overnight and I needed to tell her.

Theirs was the type of relationship where mother and son would call every day to visit and check in on each other.

I went with our caregiver coordinator to break the news. As they conversed, I did the only thing I could think of, which was call everyone within the Silver Bay area with whom the mother was close.

The outpouring of friendship and care in the days that followed was one of the most touching things that I've seen within the ministry. While one never gets over the death of a spouse or a child, it is the small acts from cards to calls to visits that keep our aging adults going.

When I go see Grandma, she is often napping. How she naps, though, is interesting: She clutches her phone like a young child clutches a teddy bear. This serves as a powerful image of how many seniors might long to hear from you.

Pastor Stew Carlson is the grandson of Beuna May Carlson of Lindstrom, Minn. He is also the board chairman for North Shore Area Partners and pastor of Sychar Lutheran Church in Silver Bay. He can be reached at sycharlutheranpastor@gmail.com.