You may have noticed that the topic of loneliness is getting a lot of press these days. Britain recently appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” in response to reports that it is impacting about 14% of their population. And in Canada, the Globe and Mail recently published an article about the negative health impacts of loneliness.
Here is the surprising thing about loneliness: it actually has an upside! According to Dr. Abraham Palmer, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, “Loneliness may be a warning sign that motivates people to try to develop social links, in the same way the pain of a burn motivates people to move away from a hot flame.” Dr. Palmer is suggesting that instead of viewing loneliness as something inevitable that we just have to endure, we can see it as a signal that we need to do something different.
But is there anything we can actually do about loneliness? The answer is a resounding yes! Loneliness is both a preventable and a reversible condition, not a life sentence. Loneliness isn’t about the number of friends we have or how much time we spend alone. Instead, loneliness is defined by a longing for greater social interaction.
Simply put, if we are feeling lonely, we need to seek out greater social interaction. As we age, we may need to become more proactive about seeking out relationships that make us feel good, because some changes in life often lead to an erosion in the social connections we had in earlier years. Retirement, passing of a spouse or friends, friends or family moving away, and health or mobility challenges can all lead to a decline in our social interaction. We may not even realize how much this has happened until we recognize we are feeling lonely.
Our later years have the potential to be the most socially active time of our lives. Freed from many of the responsibilities of earlier years, we can pursue friendships and hobbies we may not have had time for when we were younger. We just need to make sure we continue to seek out and grow our social connections; whether we are preventing loneliness or overcoming it. Because there can be a bit of inertia that accompanies loneliness—it may feel hard in the beginning to take the steps to grow our connections. However, the benefits of pushing ourselves to overcome that mild apathy will far outweigh the mild discomfort we may feel when first increasing our social interaction.
What can you do if you are feeling lonely? If you are living alone in your own home, you may need to be proactive to create the social interaction you want. If you are physically able, you might get engaged in a volunteer project as a way to interact with like-minded people. Or you might consider community organizations specifically designed for recreation and learning.
One way to proactively combat feelings of loneliness or isolation is to live in a community of peers, such as a retirement residence, where you have the choice to socialize whenever you want. In retirement residences, you don’t have to go far to find someone to talk to! Additionally, there is great peace of mind knowing that someone is always there if you ever encounter an issue. People in retirement residences still have privacy and choose when and how they socialize. But the nature of the lifestyle and the events and trips planned make it easy to meet people and develop friendships.
If you are feeling lonely, instead of seeing it as inevitable, recognize that it is reversible. Making friends and having meaningful social interaction are important throughout our lives. And the good news is that, with a little bit of effort you can forever have the joy and connection that comes with friendship.
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.