This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.
Loneliness is an epidemic, and it’s affecting our health. Over a quarter of the U.S. population and 28% of older adults now live by themselves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Social isolation, the absence of relationships with family and friends, and loneliness, a subjective feeling, are hot topics right now,” said Joan Michelle Moccia, immediate past president of the Gerontology Advanced Practice Nurses Association and program director of the Senior ER at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan.
Social isolation and loneliness have serious health consequences, equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Moccia said. “Isolated individuals who report feelings of loneliness suffer higher rates of morbidity, depression and cognitive decline,” she said.
Feeling lonely or socially isolated can have life-threatening consequences, said Chris Segrin, department head of communications at the University of Arizona and a behavioral scientist whose specialty is interpersonal relationships and mental health. It causes blood pressure to increase. Cardiovascular health is at risk. It’s as serious of a risk as smoking, obesity or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise, he said.
Segrin likens acute loneliness to a person who feels the need to go somewhere but can’t find their car keys, except a lonely person carries that stress long-term, which takes a toll on their health.
“Age-related changes such as loss of memory; impairment in mobility, hearing and vision; chronic medical conditions; along with life events may predispose an older adult to experience a loss of significant others and the inability to maintain the desired level of activities, interests and social network,” Moccia said.
Technology can harm
Loneliness and social isolation are not the same.
“Social isolation is an objective condition when an individual has minimal contact with other individuals or community. Loneliness is a feeling one experiences if support or companionship they desire is not available. Maintaining social relationships, volunteering, engaging in community has proven to negate the negative effects of social isolation,” Moccia said.
The role technology plays in loneliness is complicated, Segrin said. It has not proven to be the bridge to escape isolation people thought it would be. Know that social media users are curating their content and presenting themselves in a positive light.
“Consuming social media can do as much harm as good,” Segrin said.
Be wise with your social media use, Segrin said. Ask yourself, are you getting anything positive out of it?
“Set limits and keep it minimal,” Segrin said.
Replace time spent online with live face-to-face activities.
“Find opportunities to connect with people who share similar interests. Similar interests are the basis of almost all friendships,” Segrin said.
This is where technology can be helpful. Google “knitting,” “bowling,” “book clubs,” “woodworking” or any other interest and find a local outing.
“The second you walk in the door you will immediately have something in common (with others). The opportunities for interactions flow. As human beings we enjoy hanging around with others who have similar interests,” Segrin said.
If family is not nearby, look for opportunities for intergenerational engagement, said Sheri Steinig, special projects director at Generations United, a nonprofit that brings older adults and children together through a variety of programs.
“For grandparents, it is good to remember that there are many families and children in your community that could benefit from your time. Grandparents can volunteer at places where children and families gather such as schools, community centers, libraries, hospitals, child care or after school programs. You could volunteer at a community kitchen, food pantry or shelter. Look at places of worship, who often have volunteer opportunities. Many of these opportunities take time to arrange, so be sure to start connecting with these organizations early,” Steinig said.