The Loneliness of Age


*Note: As I was driving home the other day, I happened upon an NPR story on the health risks of chronic loneliness and then saw an article in the New York Times about the same subject. While I wrote this essay earlier in the summer, I realized that it’s message is an important one any time, so here it is.

A reminder to all of us to take care of each other.

I really thought that this month I was going to write about the importance of self care during the summer.

You know, eat well, sleep well, get exercise, drink smoothies, take vitamins, schedule ‘me time”.

After all, summer is traditionally a busy time with picnics, barbecues, family reunions, vacations, community events, fireworks, fairs and so much more. A time when we can easily get run ragged with the pace.

The need to slow down and take care of ourselves warrants a reminder.

…YAWN. Honestly, I wasn’t excited to write about what I thought was a pretty overdone subject.

I started to wonder about those women who might find summer a lonely time.

I wondered if summer’s emphasis on group celebrations and activities could backfire and make some of us feel more lonely? If we don’t have extended family or friends, live alone, or aren’t able to enjoy the freedoms of summer because of jobs or illness there might be a sense of loss, loneliness or disconnect.

So I did some research and found that occasional loneliness in response to change or loss is normal, in fact even adaptive. We’ve all felt this from time to time. Actually, the discomfort of feeling disconnected encourages us to reach out and find some kind of social support to help us feel connection.

Chronic loneliness is destructive. Chronic loneliness is occasional loneliness gone awry.

It is the ever-present feeling of being socially isolated despite wishing for connection with others. It is self-perpetuating and the chronically lonely stay away from the very relationships that could sustain them. Chronic loneliness promotes secrecy, lack of trust and a fear of rejection.

Chronic loneliness also affects our health negatively and has become a recognized public health issue. It increases our risk of diabetes, sleep disorders, higher blood pressure, decreased immune response and even premature death.

The statistics on chronic loneliness, social isolation and living alone are eye-opening:

  • According to an AARP study:35% of all adults over 45 are chronically lonely.

  • Research indicates that chronic feelings of loneliness can decrease life expectancy by as much as 26%.

So, what to do to combat occasional loneliness and avoid falling into a more chronic experience of loneliness?

According to University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo:

  • First, acknowledge our loneliness. There is no shame in being lonely. There is a strong taboo in our culture to avoid or deny loneliness and blame ourselves.

  • Second is to understand what chronic loneliness does to mind and body. Sometimes a good therapist can help sort out the thought processes that make the cycle of chronic loneliness so hard to break.

  • And finally, respond to loneliness with action. Reconnect to the world in a way that feels safe and non-threatening. Whether that means joining a group or simply calling a friend, it should feel challenging but not overwhelming or anxiety producing. Decreasing social isolation and forging meaningful, supportive relationships takes time and trust.

Most of us will only experience the occasional loneliness that comes with life’s ups and downs. In those cases, having a plan to re-engage with life will be all we need to get back on track.

Now You:

Does summertime create any sense of loneliness for you? When have you been lonely? What has helped you to feel more social connection and support? Have you helped a friend who was lonely and if so how have you helped them?

Leave your comments below.