We live in lonely times. Rates of loneliness have reached alarming proportions in the adult US population, both young and old. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who self-identify as “lonely” has doubled from 20% to 40%.
I remember visiting my grandmother in her nursing home in the final years of her life. My mother, who was a weekly visitor to the home, often commented on the sad, still, almost palpable loneliness of the environment. Many of the elderly residents received few if any visitors.
But although the elderly are often especially vulnerable, surprisingly, they are not the loneliest demographic. The Health Insurer Cigna’s 2018 Loneliness index found thatGeneration Zers, ages 18-22, scored a loneliness rate of 48.3 out of 80, making them the loneliest generation. Millennials, ages 23-37, come in second with a loneliness score of 45.3. Paradoxically, this epidemic of loneliness in young adults is occurring during an age of electronic hyper-connectedness through social media.
For all adults, the problem of social isolation and loneliness carries serious physical and emotional health risks. Loneliness is now as great a threat to health as smoking and obesity. Seniors who self-identify as lonely are significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s-type dementia, as well as heart disease and premature death, when compared to their more socially-connected peers. Prolonged loneliness at any age increases the likelihood of depression and a host of related mental health problems.
What can we do to help ourselves or our loved ones, who may be suffering from loneliness?
1Be around people more
Make a coffee or lunch date with a friend. Call or visit parents and/or family members to reconnect. Go to church. Find a group with similar interests (pottery? bowling? walking?) and meet together on a regular basis. Even making small talk with cashiers or other strangers can help make it easier to have more meaningful talks with others. Interestingly, a recent study shows that even for introverts, forcing ourselves to act more social than we feel like being is actually beneficial to our well-being.
2Limit time spent on social media and be intentional about how it’s used
Social researchers have known for some time that reducing our use of social media actually tends to make us less lonely. Nonetheless, social networking platforms can be useful tools for staying in touch with, or reaching out to, people we actually want to stay in touch with. The key is to reduce mindless scrolling, and use social media tools intentionally to connect in meaningful ways.
3Give a little
Volunteering for an organization that shares your values can be an effective way to ease loneliness, as well as to make a positive contribution to the community. While coordinating with a friend or acquaintance to get together might pose a challenge, many volunteer organizations will be glad to have the extra help. Volunteering when, and for which cause, we choose can not only get us out of the house and put us in contact with others, reducing isolation, but it can lift sadness by shifting our perspective away from ourselves and giving us the knowledge that we are making a meaningful difference in the world around us.
How St. Therese dealt with loneliness as a child
Scripture passages for when you are feeling lonely