Human beings are social by nature. We desire belonging and connection. At our core is the desire to participate in social settings, while being accepted for who we are. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, as well as ecological economist Manfred Max-Neef identified social contact as critical to human existence. Social connectedness, or lack thereof, can influence our emotional and physical health outcomes. It might even determine how long we live.
The Loneliness Crisis
Loneliness has been identified as a public health issue in the U.S. Older adults report higher levels of loneliness, and one quarter of those over 65 are socially isolated. Loneliness can occur despite how many people we see. We could be lonely at a crowded party, or among friends. Loneliness is subjective; when we believe we are connected, we feel less lonely.
Isolation, on the other hand, happens when we have limited contact with others.
People who are marginalized also face higher levels of loneliness and isolation. This includes new immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and elderly people who are being abused. New immigrants may face language and cultural barriers. They may not have a strong community in their new country. LGBTQ+ people may face prejudice and discrimination, and struggle to access proper medical and social support.
Older individuals who have fewer social connections are at a higher risk for elder abuse. Isolation may leave them vulnerable to financial, emotional, or physical abuse or neglect. Also, the abuser may intentionally isolate them from their network.
The Impact of Loneliness
Research suggests that lack of social connection can have a negative impact on health. Loneliness may change our immune systems’ inflammation response. Inflammation is necessary to help our bodies heal. But extended periods of inflammation may cause health problems. Brain inflammation may lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Cancer cells may spread more quickly, and our immune system may be weakened. This means less capability to fight illness.
The evidence suggests that limited social contact shortens our lifespan. Social isolation, loneliness and living alone are believed to contribute to early death 29%, 26% and 32%, respectively. The negative effects may be greater than harm from other common causes of early death. This includes sedentary lifestyle, obesity, substance abuse, cigarettes, mental health, health care access, etc.
Loneliness and social isolation have been associated with higher blood pressure. As well, they have been linked to a 29% increase in heart attacks, and 32% increase of stroke.
How to Cope with Loneliness and Isolation
It’s normal to feel lonely sometimes, but we don’t have to remain in that state. In terms of social isolation, circumstances may inhibit us from doing certain activities. For example, older people may become isolated if they lose mobility. However, there are ways that we can combat loneliness and isolation:
- Discover what makes us feel lonely. We should define what loneliness means to us and explore why we’re experiencing it. This will help pinpoint areas for improvement. It also helps us understand our needs; we will be better prepared to handle loneliness and isolation in the future.
- Maintain existing connections. Sometimes, we drift apart from our loved ones, especially if we don’t see them often. Connections take work to keep. Ex. we can call our friend each week, schedule lunch with a cousin, or share an evening drink with our neighbor.
- Use alone time to explore hobbies or discover new activities.
- Join a class or club. This helps us gain skills or knowledge with others who share our interests. We can even join online groups.
- Volunteer. Volunteering helps us meet new people and makes us part of a community. Also, it gives us purpose. We feel connected to a cause larger than ourselves and see our ability to add value to the world.
- Seek professional help. Sometimes, we can’t singlehandedly deal with isolation or loneliness. That’s okay. A professional counselor can support us through difficult emotions. They can also help us create a plan for navigating negative feelings.
Human beings experience better outcomes when we have supportive, valued connections with others. Sometimes, a person’s journey out of loneliness and isolation may be particularly challenging (like victims of elder abuse). But in most cases, if we seek solutions, we can work to become more connected.
To report elder abuse, contact: