Mother Teresa said that “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” For those of us who work in the world of older adult services, we know that loneliness is a significant issue. According to a University of California San Francisco study, older adults who reported feeling lonely had a 45% increase in their risk of death. Loneliness has been linked to medical conditions including impaired immune system function, inflammation, high blood pressure, depression and cognitive decline. So clearly loneliness is not just a “state of mind,” it is a state of being and a factor in well-being.
Yet loneliness seems to be part and parcel of the aging process for many people. As older adults lose friends and family members, their social circles inevitably shrink. Their ability to drive may be limited or nonexistent and even walking can be a challenge. Add to that other possible complications of aging like hearing or vision loss and you can see that making connections becomes much more complex than for younger individuals.
As well, many older adults have lost their sense of identity. Where once they would define themselves by their role in the world, often through their career, now they don’t have that description. They are no longer the banker, or the mom or the volunteer, they are a person who now talks about themselves as “I was” rather than “I am.” Thinking of yourself as “I was” creates its own sense of loss.
Families, too, may not be geographically available or even estranged. And family members who play a caregiving role may be juggling the needs of the elder and the needs of their own family, meeting physical needs but possibly not emotional needs. A study at the University of Chicago on loneliness indicated that loneliness can also cause people to behave in ways that may cause others to avoid them, so loneliness also breeds more loneliness.
Yet there is also research to suggest that loneliness can be addressed and its impact mitigated. In 2011, the Campaign to End Loneliness began in Great Britain in 2011. This multi-faceted approach includes bringing organizations together, uniting for political action and more. But the key to the Campaign is recruiting volunteers who have a desire to ameliorate loneliness in their communities. Their approach uses questionnaires to help understand loneliness and its causes and, beyond that, suggests interventions.
A similar program began in the United States in 2012, focused less on asking questions and more on identifying social isolation as the crucial element of loneliness to be tackled. The effort includes organizations that already provide community outreach to senior such as meals on wheels and the like.
All of those efforts are important and wonderful. They focus on a problem that is often well beneath the surface, a problem that has much greater ramifications than most people understand. But these efforts, in and of themselves, are not enough. What can we do to help quell loneliness? What can we do to help elders in our lives to feel less lonely and more connected?
I think the answers are both simple and complex. For those older adults in our own lives, reaching out is key. And when you check in, don’t be afraid to ask about loneliness and about how they really feel. For those living in the community, suggest participation in community activities, senior centers, religious organizations and more. For those living in more communal settings, reach out to staff and help them know the things that your loved one likes to do and ways they like to connect.
You can encourage your loved one to reach out to old friends or distant relatives and renew those former relationships. You can help them to see that having more relationships can decrease those feelings of loneliness, help them refresh those tools they once used to make friends. Most of all, you can support them by both acknowledging that loneliness is a real issue and that creating new friendships is not always easy but worth the effort.
And you can get involved and volunteer. Visiting a loved one? Talk with them and draw others into the conversation, creating social connections. Don’t have elders in your life to visit? There are many places where volunteers are very welcome and make a real difference.
In the words of Dorothy Day, “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.”