Carla Perissinotto, MD, associate professor of geriatrics at the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Perissinotto’s research into the association between loneliness and health was published in Archives of Internal Medicine.
Loneliness is a miserable feeling…and generic advice such as joining a hiking club or a senior center may not help. The key to relieving your own loneliness is to understand it. Why are you lonely?
It’s an important question to answer because loneliness has been linked to a variety of health problems, such as weakened immunity and hardening of the arteries. Research also suggests that the dangers associated with loneliness are on par with those related to obesity and cigarette smoking.
Latest development: Loneliness is now considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Although the exact link between loneliness and the brain is unknown, some experts hypothesize that loneliness provokes a chronic stress reaction that promotes inflammation, which accumulating evidence suggests may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia.
How to fight loneliness and its associated health risks…
Many people choose to live by themselves and are perfectly content. Conversely, you can be lonely without being alone. Many lonely people are married, and some even have lots of friends.
So what is this thing called loneliness? It can include feeling that you lack companionship, feeling left out and feeling isolated. You can even be lonely without knowing it—you can have one of these feelings and not recognize it as loneliness, in the same way that some depressed people do not identify their negative moods and lethargy as depression.
Some people may be more vulnerable to feeling lonely because of their personalities. But other times, people are in situations that promote loneliness. For example, maybe they need to stay home due to an illness and miss seeing others…or perhaps they are living in a rural area where it’s difficult to connect with others and they crave more daily contact with people.
Loneliness also increases with age. In one study, 43% of seniors reported feeling lonely. Two main reasons for this…
• Relationships frequently dwindle with age. Upon retirement, your career-long social network may crumble…friends and family may move away…a beloved life partner may die.
• Our ageist, youth-centered culture tends to ignore the wisdom and experience that aging provides. The elderly are often stigmatized as a burden on society. It’s easy to believe that your life no longer has a purpose when you feel unacknowledged by a world in which you once played a productive role.
There’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for loneliness. But if you ask yourself the important question—Why am I lonely?—you may discover a solution that works for you. The following suggestions often help people pinpoint the cause of their loneliness and allow them to overcome it.
If you feel that you lack companionship…
• Connect with more people. Connecting with people who share your strong interest in something may help fill that void. Try joining a book group if you love to read…or an activist group if you are passionate about politics. Consider volunteering to tutor children or serve meals at a shelter. Beneficial connections can happen one-on-one or in groups. Some people find that getting a pet is helpful.
Unfortunately, the loneliness of social isolation may have deep roots. Even if you are lonely for companionship, you may find it difficult or unpleasant to connect with others—particularly if the problem is long-standing. Dig down to find out why.
Some people never developed the social skills that foster friendships, and some hold maladaptive beliefs about themselves (a sense of inferiority or superiority, for example) or about others (such as mistrust). If this is the case, self-reflection and therapy can help.
• Put technology to work. Computer, tablet or smartphone applications like Skype and FaceTime allow you to talk with—and see—friends and family who aren’t nearby. The apps are free (once you own the device).
If you’re uncomfortable with technology, consider taking a free class at a public library or senior center. Check SeniorNet (SeniorNet.org), a nonprofit company that offers in-person classes across the country specially designed for older adults.
Useful: The AARP-sponsored website Connect2Affect.org offers valuable information and an interactive guide to local resources, such as job opportunities, volunteer programs and tax preparation services. Also, SeniorCenterWithoutWalls.org enables isolated seniors to participate in groups via phone or computer.
Important: Social media, such as Facebook, provides a measure of connectedness but shouldn’t displace real-life contact.
If you feel left out…
• Deepen your relationships. Taking steps to deepen your friendships—by revealing more about yourself and listening and responding wholeheartedly to what your friends have to say—may bring the warmth of true connection into your life. Here, too, a therapist can help by giving you the tools you need to deepen your relationships.
Is it your relationship with your life partner that needs more intimacy? If your marriage leaves you lonely, you and your spouse may benefit from couples counseling.
If you feel physically isolated…
• Overcome barriers. Mundane difficulties can cut you off from others. Transportation is often an issue for older people who have mobility problems or don’t drive. Local agencies for the aging can provide help, as can the website Connect2Affect.org (mentioned above).
Consider using a “task-sharing” service where people trade skills for what they need—for example, you help someone with balancing her checkbook and she gives you a ride to the supermarket. Websites to try: SwapRight.com or Simbi.com. You could also take a taxi or use Uber if you cannot get a ride otherwise.
Maybe your diminished hearing or vision makes you reluctant to socialize. If that’s the case, talk to your doctor about ways to improve your hearing or sight.