The holiday season is a time for gathering around the proverbial hearth and spending time with the people who you hold dear. But unfortunately, not everyone’s hearth is warm and cozy. Loneliness is a serious public health issue in the United States, especially for older adults. Why are so many so lonely and how can we lend a helping hand?
What is Loneliness?
The holiday season in the U.S. features a long list of pop culture icons who suffer from loneliness: The Grinch, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Frosty the snowman, Nestor the long-eared donkey, Jack Frost, and in some cases even Santa Claus himself. The most recognized example of loneliness in old age is undoubtedly Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly main character in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
As is usually the case, our popular media arise from and feed the contemporary problems in our society writ large. A recent study found that loneliness persists across the adult lifespan, but it’s particularly acute during three age periods: late-20s, mid-50s, and late-80s. Loneliness seeps into all of our lives at some point or another, but what, exactly, is loneliness?
Some equate loneliness to social isolation, but those concepts don’t always go hand-in-hand. One can be alone and not feel lonely, and it’s also possible to feel lonely in a crowd of other people. From a psychological perspective, loneliness doesn’t depend on the number or relationships one has, but on the perceived quality of those relationships. In other words, we feel disconnected when we think that our relationships are shallow or fragile. Loneliness is subjective, but it also has serious consequences for our health.
The Loneliness Epidemic
For two decades, public health officials have described the overwhelming sense of loneliness in the U. S. as an epidemic. This description has its pros and cons—much like classifying aging as a disease. On the one hand, a loneliness epidemic is more likely to get government funding for research, therapies, and infrastructural support. On the other hand, describing loneliness as an epidemic runs the risk of obfuscating those most in need—something akin to an off-handed “Everyone’s lonely so get over it.”
In a shocking (and somewhat polarizing) sociological study published over a decade ago, a large percentage of Americans reported having shrinking social networks and fewer relationships. This study has recently been questioned for faulty data, but it continues to be cited in arguments for the importance of addressing loneliness.
Regardless of terminology, researchers have well documented the detrimental effects of loneliness on people’s health:
- Loneliness has been connected to cardiovascular problems and shorter lifespans.
- Loneliness inhibits creativity and reasoning.
- Lonelier individuals are less likely to get quality sleep.
- Loneliness affects productivity in the workplace—lonely individuals are more likely to experience unemployment and poor job satisfaction.
- Loneliness is often associated with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts/tendencies.
- Poor coping mechanisms such as obsessive technology use (especially social media), self-harm, alcohol abuse, and smoking have also been correlated with loneliness.
Loneliness and Older Adults
While everyone experiences bouts of loneliness, older adults occupy a unique position. Recent studies suggest that older adults who are isolated or lonely are likely to be sicker—and have shorter lifespans—than those who feel more socially or emotionally connected. Loneliness is oftentimes spoken about in terms of sociability and social networks. But maintaining these relationships requires at least one of two things: (1) mobility and/or (2) technological literacy. Both of these offer challenges to many older adults.
Older adults become less mobile over time, their friends and relatives disperse or die, and physical limitations make it difficult to communicate with others. Older adults often have a harder time making friends—or simply lack the desire to make friends. They may have fewer opportunities to meet new people, and can have a “why bother” attitude. Current technologies allow for easy communication for some of us. But older adults sometimes have difficulty in using these technologies. They didn’t grow up with them like many of their younger peers.
Loneliness, however, isn’t necessarily linked to communication. In fact, communication technologies can make relationships seem shallower over time. Researchers have found that older adults might feel more connected to their social network when using electronic tools, but the benefits receded after 12 months of use.
And while 20-30 percent of older adults report that they’ve felt lonely at least some of the time, statistics typically show that older age eventually correlates to less loneliness. In one study, older adults reported lower rates of loneliness than younger adults (43 percent of those age 45-49 were lonely compared to 25 percent of those 70+). So while loneliness might not predominantly affect older adults, older adults’ experiences of loneliness highlights how and where (social) eldercare needs improvement.
How to Reduce Loneliness
Counteracting loneliness requires both personal and institutional interventions. What can you do to mitigate loneliness in your life, regardless of your age? Here are some tips:
Don’t be too hard on yourself…and don’t let your friends sabotage themselves either.
Self-deprecating humor can sometimes be a sign of a healthy self-image, but oftentimes it correlates to poor views about oneself or one’s social circle. Remember that words matter. Saying or thinking that relationships won’t happen or that the ones you have are invalid can prove detrimental your mental health and ultimately your lifespan.
Fight the urge to isolate yourself.
Isolation can validate your fears of loneliness and negative thoughts about relationships. However, remember that proximity to people doesn’t define loneliness and isolation. You can avoid loneliness by chatting with friends on the phone or online. Or even take advantage of alone time by practicing self-care.
Get comfortable with being alone and recognize the importance of solitude.
Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely, according to health researchers. Peace, quiet, and self-reflection are necessary for overall wellbeing. Take a breather. Know that you don’t have to say “yes” to every social outing. You will still be a valued member of your social network.
Expand your social network and deepen relationships.
Introverts typically have a small group of confidantes whereas extroverts have a larger network of shallower relationships. Both types of people should occasionally step outside of their comfort zones and implement the practices of the other. Introverts, put yourselves out there and expand your social networks. Extroverts, take a second to be alone and find value in that alone time. Try to make a deeper connection with some people that you only know superficially.
Advocate for a wiser society.
People who we oftentimes describe as wise experience less loneliness than others. Researchers have recently described wisdom as composed of six traits: general knowledge of life, emotion management, empathy, acceptance of divergent values, self-reflection, and decisiveness. They suggest that wisdom could help protect against loneliness and increase overall wellbeing.