Is There an Epidemic of Loneliness?
By Kathy Ferguson, RN, Parish Nurse
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Deuteronomy 31:6
Maybe it is because I now live alone that I have become aware of the number of people who are lonely in our congregation, in our community, in our country, and across the world. I think that technology has had an impact on increasing loneliness. We are now able to telecommute to work and may not have any contact with a human being for days. I don’t have to talk to anyone in person or on the phone—email and text messages are the preferred means to communicate for many people. We may be lonely because of our age, our ability/disability, our economic status, changes in family structure, changes in our work life, or maybe we just choose to be alone. Let’s investigate if loneliness really is a problem and what we can do about it.
According to an article by Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), one in three Americans lives alone. The AARP estimates that more than 8 million older adults are affected by isolation. In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. Research has shown that loneliness can have an adverse effect on health. According to the HRSA, “Living alone, being unmarried (single, divorced, widowed), no participation in social groups, fewer friends, and strained relationships are not only all risk factors for premature mortality but also increase the risk for loneliness.” Information from the HRSA says that 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, there is a 45% increase in mortality (death) in seniors who report being lonely, and that loneliness is more dangerous than obesity and as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Those are some pretty grim statistics. I knew loneliness was not pleasant, but the effects on health were a surprise to me.
In the article titled The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the author concludes that there is now evidence that being connected socially reduces the risk for premature death and a lack of social connection increases risk. The article goes on to state that there is evidence of the prevalence rates of social isolation are increasing and warrant public health attention. The author concludes the article, “Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a loneliness epidemic.”
So we know that loneliness is a problem in our world, is there anything we can do about it? It seems overwhelming when you look at the statistics. Surely, there is no easy way to tackle this! Instead of looking at numbers and statistics, think of the individuals in our own congregation or family who may live alone, are homebound and are lonely. This is a time to “think globally, act locally”—you can have your eye on the big picture of loneliness, but focus on what is happening right here at Bethel or in your own family.
Consider these ideas about how to connect with someone who may be lonely:
Make a phone call to someone who lives alone to see how they are doing.
Visit someone who is in one of the local care facilities.
Call them up and say “Let’s get a cup of coffee this afternoon. I will pick you up at 2:30.”
Volunteer to drive them to church services or one of Bethel’s many activities.
Invite them over for Sunday dinner.
Do you know someone who is going to a medical appointment alone? Offer to go with.
Be dependable. If you do make plans, try not to cancel. This can be a huge letdown to someone who is looking forward to having company.
Send an e-mail.
Do they like to read? Bring them a book. Do they like to draw? Bring them a tablet or drawing paper and/or pencils or pens.
Introduce them to a hobby you enjoy.
Pray for those who are lonely or isolated.
Most of all just be present with individuals who are lonely.
What if I am the one who is lonely?
These are some ideas to help combat loneliness (Bernhard, 2016):
Reach out to a non-human “friend”
This may be a pet, but can also include things like a book, nature, a TV show.
Connect with a human friend
Give someone who you trust a call.
Do something creative
Try an adult coloring book, knit, needlework, woodwork, a jigsaw puzzle.
Volunteer to help someone else in need
Not only will this help another individual, but will make you feel good. It is a way to make a human connection.
Remind yourself that life is not always perfect
Loneliness is an unpleasant moment in your life, but it does not define your whole life. Emotions are not permanent. Tomorrow may be a better day.
Crank up the radio, put on a CD, listen to your downloaded music and sing along. Really belt it out! You might also add a few dance moves. (Disclaimer: You may want to avoid “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis and “Lonely Boy” by Andrew Gold)
Get out there
Go to a play, a parade, a sporting event, shopping. It is a chance to be around other people and feel part of something.
If you are depressed, contact your healthcare provider
Signs of depression include: Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, loss of interest in daily activities, appetite or weight changes, sleep changes, anger or irritability, loss of energy, strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt, concentration problems, unexplained aches, and pains.
Loneliness may be considered an epidemic, but there are things that we can do either for ourselves or for people who are close to us. Take the time to visit with someone who may be lonely.
AARP. (2018). 1 in 3 U.S. adults are lonely, survey shows. Retrieved from: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2018/loneliness-survey.html
Bernhard, T. (2016). 10 things to try when you’re feeling lonely. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/turning-straw-gold/201612/10-things-try-when-you-re-feeling-lonely
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness: prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors. Public policy & aging report, (27)4.
HRSA. (2019) The loneliness epidemic. Retrieved from: https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic