The story on the front page of this morning’s paper, “Loneliness darkens twilight years,”  made my blood run cold.  The photo gave me the chills.

Mike de Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Photo: Mike de Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The essence of the article is that loneliness increases the chances of early death by 45%. This, compared to alcohol (30%) and obesity (20%).

Audrey Brennan, the woman in the photo, is 86. Until a few years ago, she lived in her own house, drove a minivan, went with her friends to lunch and the theater, had a life that involved moving and driving, going and seeing, chatting and listening. The life she had sounds like fun. It was, at the very least, a life of her own design.

So then she went out to get the morning paper one day, slipped on a patch of ice and broke her hip. Boom. Her entire life pretty much evaporated. She can’t maneuver her two-story house. She can’t drive. Life as she knew it is done. New life is an apartment in a senior housing project where she pretty much sits alone all day every day except for the visit from Meals on Wheels. She says the people there are nice but she doesn’t have friends. All of her friends are dead or too disabled to visit.

So she’s stuck. She is physically stuck (because she is wheelchair and walker-bound) and she also believes she is stuck. Worse, from my point of view, there seems to be no hopeful ‘what’s next’ for her. Except for Jeopardy. She looks forward to that every day.

Well, so, I’m looking at Audrey, a well-educated, previously capable, engaged person, who is just 19 years my senior. Nothing about her situation is hypothetical to me.

It occurs to me that it’s a bit inconsistent to be raving about the joys of aging on one hand, touting the loveliness of aging’s wisdom and freedom, while getting knots in my stomach about  ending up like Audrey.

But what is it about Audrey’s situation that is so frightful? Is it her physical disabilities? I don’t know. I’ve lived with a hearing disability for a long time which is a much more oppressive thing than people might imagine but I can get up from this chair right now and walk two or three miles. I drive my car. I ride a bike. I swim. I wrangle heavy boxes. I’ve never in my life felt physically infirm.

So is the notion of being physically infirm a frightening thing? Yes.

But I don’t think it’s the most frightening thing.

I think the scariest thing is just totally running out of gas. That’s what’s happened to Audrey. She seems to have run out of gas. There is no more adaptation in her, no coping, no Plan B, C, D or Z. There are no new interests, no new friends. She hates Bingo. I don’t criticize her for that. It’s her life and that’s where she’s at right now. But if you ask me what I’m afraid of as I get older, that would be it. Quitting.

I don’t want to run out of gas while my car is still running, if you know what I mean. That’s what I got out of reading about Audrey. And I thank her for that. Telling her story so the rest of us could think about ours.