The loneliness epidemic: What it is and what we can do about it
Q. I am feeling alone, particularly in this holiday season. Many of my friends have died. Some don’t drive while others are dealing with an illness or disability. My small family is on the East Coast. I assume my experience is not exceptional. Any suggestions? E.R.
Thank you for bringing this important topic to our attention. Your experience is exceptional because it is yours. It is not exceptional if we look at society as a whole. Let’s begin with what we know about the subject.
Loneliness is the gap between the amount of social connectedness you have and the amount you want. It is a feeling; one that is subjective. According to the campaign to end loneliness, there are three ways individuals may experience the emotion of loneliness: when meaningful relationships are absent; when there is a perceived deficit in the quality of those relationships; or something called existential loneliness, which is feeling separate from others and the larger world.
Social isolation is connected to loneliness but different. It is the lack of social contacts and the level and frequency of them.
Loneliness is a universal human experience that can affect anyone at any age. It is considered a national epidemic, as noted by the U.S. Surgeon General in his 2023 report. Loneliness and isolation have no age boundaries. “More than one-third of adults aged 45 and older report feeling lonely and nearly one-fourth of those age 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated,” concludes a CDC report. Generation Z, those between ages 18-22, report feeling the loneliest.
It’s adults aged 65 and older who are particularly at high risk for chronic loneliness because they are retired, have lost social connections, have friends with mobility problems and have their own physical limitations.
Support to counteract this underreported epidemic comes from sources that might be surprising. The University of Southern California has a Director of Belonging who also teaches a course on how to make friends and feel better. In the UK, a Minister of Loneliness has been appointed to tackle the problem. Then there is Dr. Ruth Westheimer at age 95 who is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I still will talk about sexual dysfunction. But I have done that.” She has turned her attention to what she considers the biggest need right now, the epidemic of loneliness in the US. Her new goal is to become the Loneliness Ambassador for New York State. She got the job and has become the nation’s first state-level honorary Ambassador to Loneliness.” (November 9, 2023).
This epidemic has serious physical and mental consequences. It has been linked to heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, addiction, suicide and self-harm, dementia and earlier death. The associated health risks are comparable to the dangers of smoking and obesity, increasing the risk of dying by up to 30 percent.
Certain factors might increase a person’s likelihood of being socially isolated and lonely as reported by the Centers for Disease Control.
Earning less than $50,000 a year.
Suffering from a psychiatric disorder including depression.
Feeling marginalized or being discriminated against.
Living in rural areas with limited transportation, language barriers and difficulty accessing resources.
Feeling stress because of limited resources.
Having a chronic disease condition or long-term disability.
Being a victim of violence or abuse.
Living through a major life transition such as getting a divorce, losing a job or a loved one.
For many, living alone is the culprit. In 2020, over one-quarter of older adults lived alone. That comes to 1.7 million people and includes about one out of five older men and one out of three older women. Living alone only increases with age. For women aged 75 and older, 44 percent live alone or are solo agers. There are consequences.
One is self-neglect. Take eating, for example, a social activity. It is not social if you consistently are eating alone. Preparing balanced nutritious meals may feel like just too much to do, which can cause weight loss and lack of essential nutrients.
The cost is not only personal; it’s also financial. Loneliness costs the US economy billions a year.
So indeed, loneliness and isolation are serious problems. Next week we’ll look at the role of community and nonprofit organizations, and how everyday folks can be resources to address this national epidemic.
Thank you E.R. for your good question. Stay well, enjoy this holiday season and spread the gift of kindness.