Loneliness Harms Health

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

As the pandemic exacerbated and highlighted, loneliness is not good for your health.

In fact, the US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s recent report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” states that it “is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.”

The general surgeon goes on to add, “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.”

Although delivery services helped people stay supplied and fed during the pandemic, it also isolated them. And since then, many of these services have become more routine, promoting continued isolation. These newer supports differ from some that were popular pre-COVID-19. For example, Meals on Wheels provides a point of connection for older adults, as delivery drivers take a moment to chat and get to know the recipients. That’s not part of the job of food delivery drivers for Grubhub or Instacart to make those connections.

Life stage is also a factor. The effects of loneliness on older adults are particularly meaningful as at this point, the deep connections of workplace and familial relationships segue to feeling adrift as retirement and the empty nest changes those relationships. Many older adults have become divorced than in previous generations and their adult children no longer live nearby. If they downsize, they lack familiar neighbors they’ve known for decades.

Renee Hagar-Smith

“It is important to consider the effects of loneliness on older adults as there is more social isolation and loss of social networks in general as we age,” said Renee Hagar-Smith, mindful living coach, speaker, and workshop facilitator in Fayetteville. “This can lead to depression, lack of motivation, and have a negative effect on someone’s overall wellbeing. But there are ways to keep connected and cultivate a vibrant social life as
we age.”

Of course, working within your comfort level, Hagar-Smith recommends trying to explore new means of socializing, beginning with yourself. Feeling at home with your own self — knowing your own likes and interests and not just those of others in your life — can help you better connect with others who are similar.

“It will be hard to find your tribe if you don’t know what you are looking for,” Hagar-Smith said.

She suggested:

• “Take yourself on some dates. This helps you learn to explore new things, increase your self-awareness and gain confidence. When you are doing activities solo, it’s often easier to connect with those around you.

• “Do things that bring you joy. If you are living a joyful life, you bring that energy out into the world. You have the motivation to get up each day and naturally exude an energy that attracts others to you.

• “Be open. Open up to new experiences and new types of people in your life. You might find that as you age and go through life events like a divorce or the loss of a loved one, you might connect with people who have had similar experiences.

• “Let technology be your friend. Using social media or group websites to help support the feeling of connection is a great idea, especially if mobility is an issue. It is also a great place to start when looking for folks who share common interests with you. Think about what you are passionate about and look for online groups that align with that passion.

• “Don’t be afraid to reach out. Reach out to neighbors, local friends on social media and people in your church group. Take a chance on forming a new friendship. Not everyone will be open. But if you don’t take the first step, you might miss out on a real connection that might just change your life.”

Area resources such as Seniors Helping Seniors can also build a broader social network. The organization serves Oneida, Madison, Cayuga, Oswego and Onondaga counties. By offering a peer-to-peer relationship, the companionship service puts clients at ease.

“We always send the same person, so they get that friendship and bond between them,” said Deb Turner, the business owner. “It’s such a win-win. It helps seniors who are maybe feeling lonely at home. That leads to not eating well, sleeping late, not getting dressed — those kinds of issues. It can cause a senior who’s alone a lot. It is a win for our provider of care because they may be home alone themselves. They get something to look forward to: visiting a friend, a little extra pocket money. It helps keep them active and engaged in the community.”

Most people receiving services from Seniors Helping Seniors are self-pay, although some long-term care insurance will pay for it.

In addition, she encourages retirees to go out to lunch, visit the library to experience its community programming, and attend a community concert. Reach out to church groups that want to help provide visits at home. Many faith-based groups visit people who cannot get out or will offer transportation and companionship for outings.

“I know some people who will go to Dunkin’ Donuts a couple times a week to have a coffee,” Turner said. “At least you’re out and about. Even something as simple as going out for coffee can help.”