Where’s the Empathy?

Today’s Wall Street Journal had a story about the loneliness epidemic among the elderly, a topic I’ve written about a few times.

This article profiled a few people who are experiencing loneliness:

  • Danny Miner, a 66-year-old retired chemical plant supervisor, spends most days alone in his Tooele, Utah, apartment, with “Gunsmoke” reruns to keep him company and a phone that rarely rings.Mr. Miner sought companionship in a home health aide who came weekly to clean and make sure he didn’t fall while showering. When she finished working they would sit together and talk, sharing butterscotch candies and smiling at pictures of her grandchildren on her phone. She stopped coming in October, after she moved out of the area. “I just loved having her to talk to,” Mr. Miner says. “You don’t realize just how lonely you are until you see someone and you talk to them.”
  • When Ms. Schneider landed in the hospital with a heart attack six years ago, she had no one to call for help. “When you get older you don’t have as many friends,” she says. When she’s alone in her apartment, Ms. Schneider keeps the television on from the time she wakes up until she falls asleep “just to have music and the noise. Because then you don’t feel lonely.”
  • “I don’t like being by myself,” Ms. Lettice says. “I wish I were dating. I wish I had somebody significant.” She recently gave up two tickets to a beer-tasting fundraiser when she couldn’t find a date.
  • Gary Grasmick, a 68-year-old retired federal IT worker who lives by himself, was carrying groceries into his Washington, D.C., row house two years ago when he felt his knee give out. Overweight and unable to get up, and with no phone in reach, he lay there for at least two nights as dehydration and a urinary tract infection led to sepsis. His kidneys started shutting down and he grew delirious. After more than two weeks in intensive care, and six months in a skilled nursing facility, he returned home last year and made some changes.

But the purpose of today’s post is not to dwell on this looming health threat, but rather to express my shock and disappointment with the comments that people made regarding the story.

It made me both sad and angry to read comments like the following:

  • I have little to no sympathy. The Boomers promulgated divorce, the decline of traditional family values, healthy living, and spending responsibly.
  • Attitudes toward divorce probably correspond with our nation’s blue/red divide. Liberal ideology leads to loneliness and despair. (seriously??)
  • Baby boomer women were totally wrong about zero population growth. How ironic they are the ones leading the charge to steal my family’s resources to give to prodigious illegal immigrant families.
  • Chasing the all mighty greenback. It takes a two income household to live a moderate lifestyle. Two workers means less time for children, family, living life. It’s all work work work. To make it political – unless you’re a democrat, then it’s all subsidized housing, food stamps, and daytime tv.
  • You reap what you sow. The baby boomers and their offspring are by far the worst generations in America’s history. They deserve every bit of misery that meets them in old age.
  • Actually, I got an A in non-linear differential equations and quantum field theory. (not even sure how this is relevant to the story at hand, but it’s nice to see math being mentioned).

In the 100 plus comments I looked at it, it seemed like the majority were of this mindset, showing little empathy for the people featured in the article.

Fortunately, there were some readers who posted much kinder, empathetic comments:

  • Shocking to read how much self-important, mean-spirited verbiage is posted below (not all of it).  This was a good, insightful article.
  • If an article such as this prompts you to leave mean-spirited comments, you have no soul.
  • I think some people are just mean spirited and lack empathy for others. They should be careful how they treat others because if I’ve learned anything nothing is certain for any of us. Not your health, not your marriage, not your money etc.  One day they may need help and empathy.
  • The article is about living alone and we need to focus on that rather than attempting to find simplistic causes of it.
  • There are lots of lonely people, for more reasons than your worldview acknowledges. A little empathy could go a long way.

My immediate reaction was to feel bad for the people profiled in the story, and I just assumed anyone else would feel the same.

However, as you can see, sadly that is not the case. One commenter summed it up nicely:

  • A lot of these snarky commentators seem to lack the empathy gene. Maybe they think they’ll never end up in such a situation. Well, as an earlier comment said, “Man plans and God laughs.”

I’m still optimistic that someday we will have the “kinder, gentler nation” that George Bush talked about, but it looks like it may take a while..

P.S. One interesting side note – Bank of America is putting its employees through empathy training – a step in the right direction.

*image from YouTube

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