Studies have shown that loneliness is a major risk factor for depression, anxiety, and other states of mind that affect a person’s mood and thinking. According to one neurologist, “loneliness is a form of stress that depresses the immune system.”
Before COVID19 hit us, loneliness was already epidemic for people during certain times of their lives, and especially for those in their golden years, as they say. However, older adults are at a higher risk for chronic loneliness (loneliness that lasts more than two years) because they’ve often lost partners, siblings, and friends and because health and mobility problems can get in the way of social activity.
Of course, it is possible to be alone and not lonely. The difference is that loneliness is wanting connection and aloneness is solitude, often chosen. Lonely individuals feel isolated, excluded, and sad in their unrequited wish to be a part of others’ lives.
While we’re sure that no one wants seniors sitting at home experiencing the painful condition of loneliness, what can be done about it?
There is no quick or easy fix for chronically lonely people, but there is a lot of help, especially as loneliness becomes de-stigmatized and society makes shifts towards genuine connections.
If able, people can go for a walk, participate in creative activity, talk to people they meet, arrange visits with family and friends, and get help in the form of behavioural therapy to reframe negative thought patterns that keep others away. If they are not able to do these things, then we as a society can pay attention to them.
So how can we all help? Here are a few suggestions:
Do talk to people you see. Talk with seniors in person when able to do so, either informally or by volunteering with an organization.
Get to know your neighbours. One study found that higher “neighbourhood social cohesion” lowers heart attack risk.
Reach out and touch someone. Even just placing a hand on someone’s back is powerful medicine. Physical touch can lower our physiological stress response, helping fight infection and inflammation. And it cues our brains to release oxytocin, which helps strengthen social bonds.
Get creative. When visiting with an older adult, take along an art, craft, or writing project, or listen to music and sing together. Something that expresses feelings and makes them feel heard creates a connection.
During the past year of enforced isolation, many of us have had a taste of what it means to be lonely. We’ve been cut off from our social networks, and many of us may be touch-deprived. Even those who live with people may have had to keep their distance from others in their household.
Perhaps we can develop more empathy for older adults who live this way all the time. Maybe a benefit from lockdown could be that we will do a better job of connecting with lonely seniors once it’s over.