How the perception of loneliness takes its toll

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Since these lyrics were written by Beatle Paul McCartney, the elderly population has seen huge increases in its population of individuals living alone. In 1987, 8.5 million seniors lived alone; by 2020, 13.3 million elderly people are projected to live alone. Seventy-seven percent of all seniors living alone are women, due to women tend to marry men older than themselves, and because women live longer than men.

This newly diagnosed mental health issue in the United States, loneliness, is not about being alone. Instead it is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters. While loneliness is strongly affected by genetics and low self-esteem, other contributing factors may be loss of a job or retirement and the closure of relationships established at that workplace; moving to a new location and imposed physical isolation as a result; divorce; and death or the loss of someone significant in a person’s life. Having just three or four close friends or confidants is enough to ward off loneliness and to reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind.

Not surprisingly, 62 percent of clinically depressed individuals also reported being lonely. Depression (my last H&W discussed this illness) and loneliness often appear together and are often mistaken for each other; though they are two distinct mental states. Depression is feeling sad, lethargic, apathetic, and listless; loneliness is feeling alienated, threatened, hostile, and desperate. A person can be depressed but not be lonely if family members are supportive of his/her condition. A person can also be in a reasonably good mood about life in general but still feel socially isolated if he/she doesn’t know or trust the people nearby.

It is very normal to experience loneliness for brief periods of time, but as in clinical depression, there’s a difference in a fleeting condition and one which becomes chronic. Besides being one of the most important factors leading to depression and possible suicide, what then are other health risks associated with chronic loneliness?

1. A diet high in fats and sugars and a lack of exercise with a resulting propensity towards obesity
2. Heart and cardiovascular disease and stroke
3. Increased stress levels and decrease in immune system functioning
4. Altered brain function, decreased memory and learning, poor decision-making
5. Antisocial behavior
6. Alcoholism and drug abuse
7. The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
8. Less efficient sleep
9. Disruption of cellular processes in the body predisposing us to premature aging

Because seniors often have numerous other health issues to contend with, it’s important to know how to treat and prevent chronic loneliness. Here are a few tips by experts in the field on how to overcome chronic loneliness:

1. Recognize that chronic loneliness is a sign that something needs to be changed.
2. Understand that these changes need to begin with nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns.
3. Volunteer and join a social club or community organization such as a church.
4. Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.
5. Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead, focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.
6. Adopt a pet and receive a sure friend with an unconditional love for you.
7. Stay in touch with former acquaintances.
8. Educate yourself. Because this is a relatively new field of mental illness, credible self-help groups have not been organized yet. Seek out a good therapist for dialogue. Probe the roots of chronic loneliness.
9. Don’t substitute electronic communication for face-to-face contact.
10. As in clinical depression, learn to adjust to life’s changes; become more flexible.

Know that chronic loneliness can be contagious. According to marketing results, we all chose to live in a Del Webb community because of the great activities leading to meaningful relationships among its residents, because of the active environment, and because of the fun atmosphere. What better place for us to make sociability and happiness contagious!

If you know anyone here who might need coaxing to join in the Sun City Lifestyle, get out there with and interest them. You can do the same with a family member or other friend/s who appear to be suffering from chronic loneliness. Help them enjoy life wherever and whenever possible!

Family Alliance, a private organization in Woodstock, is available to help both McHenry and Kane County Sun City homebound elderly and their caregivers to achieve a more positive and meaningful life.

“Our ‘R.E.A.CH.’ Program’s purpose is to help isolated seniors with transportation difficulties access to achieve the best that they can be through socialization programs that operate from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday with warm breakfast and lunch served and transportation available,” Cheryl Levinson, clinical director, said.

“Our ‘R.E.A.C.H. Too’ Memory Loss Program also involves a specialized day program for seniors diagnosed with dementia, as well as programs for their caregivers,” she added.

The Caregiver Support Groups usually meet at Drendel Ballroom in two different sessions: the fourth Monday of each month, 10:30 a.m. to noon (contact Inez Young at 815-385-4672), and the second Monday of each month at the same time (contact Ann May at 815-338-3590). On June 21, a “R.E.A.C.H. FOR A Free Day at FAMILY ALLIANCE” will take place. To register, call 815-338-3590.

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