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Contemplating aging and loneliness leads to podcast Date: 10/31/19

Diane Atwood

By Diane Atwood

When I attended the tail end of a conference about rural aging in August 2018, I had no idea that it would provide me the impetus to not only embark on a new project but also adopt a new way of thinking about aging. The conference was held in my home state of Maine, fitting because Maine is tied with Florida for having the oldest population in the nation. It is also the most rural state with the highest percentage of people over 65 (58%) living in rural areas.

One of the presenters declared that loneliness was the chronic health condition of this century, especially among older people and even more so among older people who live in rural areas. In the closing session, participants were urged to listen to older people’s stories. When we listen, we can find out what’s working and what’s lacking. When we don’t listen, in addition to loneliness, people feel isolated and irrelevant.

I wrote about the conference for my blog Catching Health, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this issue of loneliness. I thought about my grandmother and the time she burst into tears in the grocery store soon after my grandfather died. About how she and I lived together for two years when I attended college. We’d watch the Lawrence Welk Show while feasting on her freshly baked hot milk cake topped with vanilla ice cream. I thought about the friendship I had with an elderly neighbor for several years before she died — the great stories she told me, the trip she and my husband and I took to Vermont to visit her cousins, the jelly glasses of warm whiskey we shared one New Year’s Eve. I thought about a beekeeper I had interviewed a couple of times when I was the health reporter at our local NBC station. The last time I saw him he was in a rehab facility recovering from his second broken hip. He complained that everyone there was “so old” and he had no one to talk to. He was 102 at the time.

I also thought about how much I enjoy hearing and telling people’s stories, and that’s when I had my "A-Ha" moment. I realized that with my Catching Health blog and podcast, I had the means and the platform to record people’s stories and share them with my audience and hopefully, beyond. I decided I would travel around the state of Maine and interview people 60 and older for a special podcast series I’d call Conversations About Aging. I would sit with them and find out what their lives had been like throughout the years and what they were like now. What had they learned? Did people treat them differently now that they were older? How did they want to be treated? What made it a good day? Were they lonely? Did they have any words of wisdom to pass along?

I made a list of organizations in Maine that provided services to older people and started sending emails. I explained what I wanted to do and asked for recommendations on people to interview. One of the first responses was from the executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, who suggested that I would likely be inspired by the Yankee ingenuity and resilience of the people I would be interviewing. She also said their stories could help inform the actions of others, including at the community and state level. My vision had been a bit narrower — I wanted to make a personal connection and share stories to inspire other older people. I hadn’t thought about the wider effect the stories could have, but now I did.

Finding people to interview has been really easy and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the initial recommendations I got. Several times a week I’ll hear about someone I “just have to interview.” One man asked his daughter to contact me because he wanted to be interviewed. As of the end of September 2019, I have published17 episodes, have three in line to be edited and three people scheduled for interviews. I publish a new episode every other week and each automatically goes out to several podcast directories. I also write an accompanying post for my blog. When the post is up, I promote it on all my Catching Health social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I also share it in my Conversations About Aging Facebook group.

Many people ask me if you can earn an income as a blogger/podcaster. Yes, it’s possible, but in addition to the time and energy that goes into everything, it costs money to create, maintain, and update my website. With the new podcast, I have additional travel-related costs. I am fortunate to have some wonderful sponsors who make it possible for me to do this work that I love and believe in and I am seeking additional sponsors for the podcast. Since launching Conversations About Aging, I’ve received invitations to speak about the project. I plan to pursue that further because I enjoy public speaking. It’s a great way to connect with people around the state.

Before I did even one interview, I thought a lot about the questions I should ask. I wanted the conversations to be casual, but probing, and I wanted people to feel comfortable enough to talk about a variety of subjects, including loss and death, and, of course, loneliness. I turned to the executive director of the Center on Excellence in Aging and Health at the University of New England for some guidance. Tom Meuser has been interviewing older adults about their life stories for more than 10 years. Several questions I ask are based on his suggestions. One piece of advice he gave me was to not assume that because someone is retired, he or she no longer works. By simply asking what someone does for work, I get interesting answers, from “I volunteer helping older people” to “I paint now” to “Work? I don’t work anymore. I’m pampered.”

One of the most important lessons I quickly learned from the conversations is that I have been guilty of what is called ageism. I would sometimes have a preconceived notion about what an older person might or might not be able to do. That was a mistake and I’m trying hard not to do that anymore. Each person I have talked with has taught me something or given me a new perspective. Years ago, I declared that I wanted to live to be 100. Now, I simply want to make each moment as rich as possible. Doing the Conversations About Aging interviews makes me feel really good. When I head off in my car to meet someone new, I get a little jolt of excitement in my chest. It’s a great feeling.

I want people to listen to the conversations and also feel good. I want them to learn from them. Perhaps they’ll learn something new about a person they know. They’ll hear something that makes them think differently about how they see and interact with older people or how they view their own aging. Maybe they’ll become inspired or motivated to offer a new program or service in their community. On a grander scale, I hope the podcast helps connect a diverse group of people across the state and that it leads to a wider discussion about aging in Maine.

At some point, I will explore the possibility of writing a book. Too busy to think about that now, though, as I have another episode to get ready. Stay tuned.

If you have the itch to create a podcast, see Atwood's detailed tip sheet on launching a podcast.

Diane Atwood was a health reporter at WCSH for more than 20 years, and then marketing and public relations manager for Mercy Hospital in Portland. She is a full-time blogger and podcaster on health issues, with a focus on aging and isolation.