Humans are social. As we age we tend to spend more time alone than we did when were younger. Serious illness can add to isolation as reduced energy and the burden of symptoms decrease tolerance for socializing. Researchers at the National Institute of Aging are studying the difference between social isolation and loneliness, how they develop and operate, and how people are affected.
About 28 percent of older adults live alone but many of them are not lonely or socially isolated. It is clear that social isolation has harmful effects on health, leading to higher risks for “a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
“People who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function,” studies show.
The late John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., former director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago found that being alone and loneliness are different but related. Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people (living alone), while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated. It’s possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely.
Dr. Cacioppo’s wife and collaborator, Stephanie Cacioppo, Ph.D. believes we all carry responsibility to help other be less lonely. She says, “Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility.” This raises interesting implications for rural communities and their response to community members with serious illness. How can the community collectively develop strategies to decrease isolation and loneliness, particularly for those already vulnerable with serious illness?
Helping others through caregiving and volunteering can decrease loneliness. The Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention & Grief Related Services –Institute on Aging in Oregon instituted a 24 hour “Friendship line” to decrease loneliness and distress.
What can your community do to support the lonely among you?