Loneliness is the 82-year-old man who celebrated his birthday alone after not speaking to anyone except the cashier at the grocery store for an entire week.
It’s the homebound younger adult with disabilities who turned down telemedicine services because the HouseCalls physician is one of only three people who ever come to her home.
It’s also the teenager whose primary positive interaction with peers is in a virtual space.
People of all ages can struggle to achieve or maintain meaningful relationships that can avert social isolation and loneliness.
The 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index studied loneliness or social isolation among U.S. adults, and found that almost 50 percent of adults feel “sometimes or always alone.”
Adults ages 18-22 were found to have the highest levels of loneliness. In a similar study of loneliness among teens, 39 percent of high school seniors said they often “felt lonely.”
The U.S. surgeon general notes the growing “loneliness epidemic” and its associated health risks.
He reports socially isolated and lonely people are more likely to have higher rates of depression, a weakened immune system, heart disease, experience cognitive decline and risk premature death.
Conversely, being socially connected – having a sufficient number of meaningful relationships, and our perception that support is available when we need it – is associated with a longer and healthier life span.
Added to the challenges of social isolation and loneliness is our reticence to talk about it.
Social isolation and loneliness can be seen as stigmatizing conditions.
Our culture often lauds self-sufficiency and independence. Individuals who experience isolation and loneliness can fear being seen as week or flawed.
As a result, those who are lonely or isolated may be reluctant to reach out for help or attempt to build new social connections.
You don’t have to be alone to be lonely, and you don’t have to be isolated to experience social isolation.
The teenager ostracized by his peers and the co-worker who “doesn’t quite fit in” can literally be slowly dying of loneliness amid a crowd. As can the older adult who is new to a community, surrounded by people in a neighborhood, but doesn’t have the skills, or perhaps the bravery, to forge new connections.
The result? Health declines, activities are further limited, and isolation is increased.
If you, or someone you care about, is experiencing social isolation, some ways you can combat loneliness include:
• Find an activity you enjoy or learn something new. You night meet people with similar interests.
• Volunteer. You’ll feel better by helping others and make connections with people you otherwise would not have met.
• Stay in touch with family, friends and neighbors. Whether in person, online or by phone, regular communication fosters meaningful connectivity.
We all have a role to play in combatting social isolation in our community.
We can be intentional about how we interact with each other; build social structures that facilitate meaningful interaction; be brave enough to be candid with each other when we experience loneliness; and be kind enough to act when someone says, “I need a friend.”
Recognizing that one in five of the people you meet this week are likely suffering from isolation or loneliness, be intentional about building connections.
Let your random acts of kindness be less random. Intentionally seek to build meaningful relationship with those you encounter.
It may be a recipe for better health for you both.
Christine Vanlandingham is chief operating officer of Region IV Area Agency on Aging in Southwest Michigan. Questions on age or independence services? Call the Info-Line for Aging & Disability at 800-654-2810 or visit www.areaagencyonaging.org. The Generations column appears each Sunday in The Herald-Palladium.