Outside the Box: How to conquer loneliness and social isolation

United States

Over the last year, we isolated from each other to avoid a potentially deadly virus. Sadly, however, many older people had plenty of practice with social isolation well before COVID-19 entered the lexicon.

As we age, loneliness is a risk factor for physical and mental decline. Living alone with little external stimulation can lead you to forgo physical activity.

Add anxiety and depression to the mix and you’re looking at the possibility of a shorter lifespan. Not to rub it in, but loneliness is associated with a 40% increased risk of dementia, according to a 2018 study.

“Prevention needs to be the mantra,” said Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health in Miami. Taking proactive steps to combat loneliness engages the brain and raises the odds that you’ll tend to your personal needs—from maintaining good hygiene to taking your prescribed medications as directed.

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It takes courage to admit, “I’m lonely.” But that’s a first step in developing lifestyle habits to address the problem and fix it.

For starters, devise a plan to resist the pull of isolation. Realize that if you don’t do anything—if you wait around for others to contact you—you’re likely to perpetuate the status quo.

“Identify pathways to make new friendships,” said James Falvey, executive director of the Minneapolis chapter of Little Brothers—Friends of the Elderly, a nonprofit group that pairs volunteers with lonely seniors. Those pathways can include participating in community- or faith-based activities. Attending events at your local library or public input sessions at city council meetings may not come naturally to you, but they provide a chance to mingle and meet people.

What if your health keeps you mostly housebound? Get creative in implementing what Falvey calls your “social engagement strategy.”

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Simply reaching out to people living nearby can pay off. In 2017, an elderly woman in Missouri wrote a letter to a 37-year-old neighbor whom she had never met.

“Would you consider to become my friend,” it began. “I’m 90 years old, live alone and all my friends have passed away. I am so lonesome and scared. Please, I pray for someone.”

Eyes tearing up, the neighbor noticed from the address that the writer lived across the street and a few doors down. The next day, she and a friend brought over cookies. They wound up talking for about an hour.

When the woman moved into a nursing home a few months later, the neighbor visited frequently.

Years of loneliness can prove exhausting, especially if you’re also dealing with chronic illness or injury. Researching social services agencies and other local resources is daunting if you’re struggling just to get through each day.

“We lose some of our strength as we age,” Falvey said. “Not just physical strength, but emotional strength. There can be a retraction in self-esteem.”

For example, he has met once-fiery seniors with a history of championing LGBTQ rights. But as they became older and lonelier, they lost their confidence and retreated into a shell.

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“We’ve had conversations with people who went back into the closet as they got older,” he said. “They didn’t tell their neighbors or nursing home staff.”

For those who struggle with loneliness, cultivating friendships might seem fraught. Perhaps you fear coming across as too needy. Or you figure that you have little to offer, given that you no longer get many chances to exercise your social muscles. It’s tempting to assume your conversational skills have atrophied, so you’re consumed with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

That’s why small talk plays such a big role. Casual chatting with retail clerks and home delivery drivers has value in itself. Joining a gym—even if you barely work out—provides a setting to see familiar faces and talk about fitness. Spending time at your community center—even if you volunteer for just an hour a week—can lead to chance encounters with neighbors that blossom into friendships.

When calling friends and acquaintances, activate your curiosity so that you ask questions and show interest in them. They’re more likely to reciprocate and get closer to you if they appreciate your attentiveness and willingness to listen without judgment.

If you see a therapist, you may be told (gently or not so gently) that you contribute to your loneliness by your attitude or treatment of others. If you cling to grievances and make lots of declarative statements (“I have no use for those people”), you dig yourself into a deeper hole.

Author of “The End of Old Age,” Agronin cites a patient who had a blowout argument with family members. It left scars that did not heal.

“He said he was never going to talk with them again,” Agronin recalled. “But his brain needed that interaction badly,” so cutting himself off from them was an act of self-harm.

“When you get in heated arguments with others, try to hear and understand their point of view,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Just making the effort” helps prevent loneliness.

Readers: What are some ways to conquer loneliness and social isolation? Add your suggestions in the comments below.