Here is a shocking statistic: there is a 45% higher risk of dying too early if someone is battling loneliness. Over 42 million Americans of all ages identify themselves as being lonely. This is not just a retirement issue. Smoking and obesity are just as risky to one's health as being perpetually lonely.
Importantly, there is huge difference between loneliness and being alone. For many of us, being alone is actually a good thing, something we look forward to for at least part of our regular schedule. After a hectic career, raising several children, or moving on from a troubled marriage, being alone can be quite a blessing. Even in a happy relationship, you may function well with periods of alone time. If you have been single for your adult life, functioning well alone is simply what you do.
Engaging our own interests, satisfying our need to volunteer, reading, watching old movies, listening to music....that type of aloneness can be a very positive state. It can be liberating to have so much control over how you spend your day.
Loneliness is quite a different condition. Usually it is not voluntary. Maybe it occurs after the death of a spouse or life-long friend. Adult children might live far away, making any together time rare. Having no real interests or passions, so each day becomes a chore to endure is a major contributor.
The type of loneliness one might experience can change. Bouts of it, lasting maybe a few days, weeks, or even months, are not as much of a health threat if there is an awareness that this condition will end. But, an open-ended sense that being lonely is when things start to press down on a person.
OK, so loneliness is a bad thing. What can be done about it? I spent a fair amount of time looking for something on the Internet that didn't present the standard answers: get out of the house more, meet new people, develop a hobby, etc, etc, etc. For those who struggle with perpetual loneliness I find these suggestions rather patronizing. They fall into the "eat your vegetables" type of advice: obvious and not very helpful.
Someone who lives in Midtown Manhattan can feel terribly alone. The standard advice to meet new people and experience new things would miss the point. This person is lonely not because he or she is actually alone. Rather, the perception of being rejected or cutoff must be tackled first.
This blog is not the place to dabble in psychological solutions. However, I found this distinction important because it opens up a new avenue of dealing with the problem. Finding out why someone feels loneliness may be the first step.
Here's where my lack of medical or physiological training exposes itself: If this is so, then doesn't the person crippled by serious loneliness have to resolve the problem from the inside first? Must the path forward start inside and move outward, rather than using external forces to change the internal dynamic?
If so, then the advice to join a club, meet new people, join a club, or even move to a new town, would be wrong. It is attempting to deal with the symptoms, not the cause.
If we know someone who suffers from chronic loneliness is there anything we can do to help? I don't know if this makes sense, but the thought that came to me would be begin a dialogue with the affected person, a dialogue that involves asking questions and getting that person to talk. Without being judgmental or armed with "solutions," maybe simply listening is a useful approach.
Start slow and easy, with non-threatening questions and gentle conversations about childhood memories the two of you can share. Funny stories about relatives, or friends from elementary school might be a way to break the ice.
It seems the goal is to get the lonely person to talk, converse with another person, and use memories to establish a positive baseline at some point in the past. Eventually, it is possible the person will begin to reveal hints and specifics about why he or she feels isolated and fearful of breaking the cycle.
If it were me involved in that probing, I would stop when some self-analysis seems to be occurring. I am not trained to offer solutions or action steps, unless the target of my care suggests something they might like to do. I would see my role as opening up some doors and windows, but not pulling that person through those spaces.
Am I even remotely correct in this approach? Do you have any personal experiences to share, either as someone who struggles with loneliness or someone who attempted to help another?
Loneliness is a serious fact of life for too many of our fellow retirees. Can we help?