5 Ways to Combat Loneliness
Loneliness isn’t just an unpleasant feeling, it can damage your physical and emotional health. Research ties loneliness to a slew of problems such as cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, a poor immune system, high blood pressure, and premature death.
People under 25 and over 65 are particularly vulnerable to loneliness and its effects. In older adults, the passing of loved ones, retirement, physical limitations, and lack of transportation can lead to isolation, which feeds loneliness. On the other hand, research shows that people who take part in meaningful activities with peers may live longer, feel a greater sense of purpose, and experience better cognitive functioning. If you’re struggling with loneliness, here are five ways you can start tipping the scales toward the latter position.
#1 Find Your "Field of Dreams"
Take a page from the classic 1989 baseball drama. “If you build it, they will come” can ring true in remedying loneliness -- with some effort, of course. Living alone and lacking opportunities to regularly connect with others puts you in an uphill battle against loneliness. Laying the groundwork to make connections on a regular basis is important. Building a support network will likely mean getting out of the house and going to social activities, groups, worship places, or even changing your living situation.
Some research suggests over 40% of seniors living alone feel isolated. A 2017 study published in Research in Aging finds one of the most important ways older adults can overcome loneliness is through frequent interactions with peers.
For some seniors, transitioning to an independent living community is a big brick in the foundation for curtailing loneliness, especially for people living alone or those with mobility issues. Just being around people isn’t the cure for loneliness, but it provides fertile ground to grow friendships.
#2 Make Real Connections
Putting yourself in situations where you have opportunities to make connections is the first step. Nurturing those connections into meaningful relationships is the next one. If you’re not engaging with others in a way that makes you feel seen and heard, it’s easy to feel “alone in a crowd,” or become depressed.
Sara Kyle, PhD, Director of Resident Experience at Holiday Retirement explains how this concept translates to seniors in an independent-living community. “One thing we’ve learned from our residents is that merely placing people in the same space does not create automatic connections,” she says. “The sense of community is built when people are free to share who they are and what makes them a person.”
Dr. Kyle points to research on longevity that shows social engagement should always accompany healthy lifestyle staples like proper nutrition and exercise. Holiday Retirement has tweaked their approach to planning activities based on research and a resident survey that included questions about feeling connected to others and the surrounding community. “What we discovered was a real opportunity to narrow our focus, not on keeping busy with activity, but rather encouraging activities that can make meaningful connections with peers inside the four walls, and also in the local town,” says Dr. Kyle.
#3 Listen to Your Loneliness
Loneliness can have many layers. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that paying attention to what underlies loneliness is an important piece of the puzzle for easing these feelings. For example, maladaptive thoughts and beliefs can perpetuate loneliness. They keep you stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk about yourself and how you relate to others.
Perhaps you think you don’t have anything interesting or valuable to offer in conversations. Maybe a memories of past rejection is coloring your present-day interactions. Chances are, you’re projecting those beliefs onto interactions with others. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you ooze negativity and self-doubt, people often sense that and want to withdraw.
These maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving are often deeply ingrained patterns. Talking to a mental health professional or joining a support group can chip away at them. Proven approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you recognize, challenge, and change unhealthy thinking. When you see your own worth and appreciate your strengths, others will likely do the same.
#4 Get a Four-Legged Friend
A large body of research supports the physical and mental benefits between humans and pets, but man’s best friend can also help loneliness symptoms. A study published in Aging and Mental Health explored the power of pets in older adults. Researchers found that pet owners were 35% less likely to experience loneliness than their counterparts and pet ownership had significant benefits for well-being. Research also found that pet ownership can significantly ease depression and loneliness in the 50-plus age range after the loss of a partner.
Caring for a pet can provide a sense of purpose. Feeding, grooming, and being with pets helps you feel needed. Pets can also get you out of the house and around people if your furry friend happens to be a dog.
#5 Help Others
Studies have long praised the physical and emotional benefits of volunteering, so it makes sense that giving back can also counteract loneliness. You don’t need to make it a full-time job. Volunteering just two hours a week has been shown to reduce symptoms of loneliness in widowed seniors according to a 2017 study in The Journals of Gerontology.
Dr. Kyle explains how the benefits of volunteering can be twofold for seniors struggling with loneliness. “As you find yourself giving back and helping others, there’s a good chance you will meet and connect with new people along the way,” says Dr. Kyle. “You can continue to hone your social skills and meet others with similar interests and values.”