Loneliness and Social Isolation

The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) launched a national campaign, in collaboration with ARRP, last November to spread the word about the growing problem of social isolation and loneliness among older Americans.

There have been many studies over the last few years focused on social isolation and loneliness. These studies consistently show significant health risks associated with feelings of loneliness and the experience of social isolation.

We all feel lonely at times, but when loneliness and isolation become chronic it can be deadly. Mother Theresa didn’t need these recent studies to know that the pain of loneliness was devastating, “the biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.”

Studies show us what Mother Theresa seemed to know, loneliness increases risk of death by 45 percent and chance of developing dementia by 64 percent.

What is unfortunate is that there are not nearly as many studies on interventions that help alleviate chronic loneliness and isolation. What is known is that loneliness, a feeling of not feeling connected with others, and isolation, the actual absence of others, are different. Treatment of each may overlap, but steps to improve relationships may be quite different.

Often there is a stigma we assign to loneliness and that judgement can lead to more loneliness and even additional judgement for not taking action to change how you are feeling. In order to lessen our loneliness we must let go of the belief that there is something wrong with feeling lonely. Whether your loneliness is a result of the loss of family and friends, due to moving, illness, or death, or lack of inter personal skills, loneliness is a common and curable circumstance. Sometimes just one connection during the day can lessen feelings of loneliness, such as the simple pleasantry exchanged with a Meals on Wheels driver.

Identifying that you or a loved one is experiencing loneliness and/or isolation is the first step. Creating opportunities for social interaction can be helpful, such as attending social programs, talking on the phone, and even joining Facebook and participating in postings can create feelings of connectivity. If developing meaningful connections is difficult, regardless of opportunity, then addressing the reasons for that must be addressed.

Combating loneliness is not a straight and narrow path, rather it is winding road that requires a willingness to embrace change and open ourselves to others. When you work toward ending your own loneliness and isolation, you are helping someone else with theirs.

To learn more about how to reduce loneliness and isolation you can visit the n4a website at
http://www.n4a.org/Files/Isolation%20BrochureFINAL.pdf.