In May 2023, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote a report addressing the epidemic of loneliness and isolation that has affected our country, especially during the last few years. The advisory emphasized that social isolation and loneliness are prevalent issues in the United States and can have a detrimental impact on our mental and physical well-being.
With the unveiling of the public health plan, Dr. Vivek noted: “In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones, and support systems.”
Social isolation is defined as the lack of relationships with others and little to no social support or contact. Loneliness, on the other hand, shows itself as feeling alone or disconnected from others even if you aren’t alone. It can feel like you lack deep or meaningful relationships or a sense of belonging.
Both isolation and loneliness can affect your physical and mental well-being, putting you at higher risk for clinical depression, heart disease, as well as both physical and cognitive decline.
Addressing both is critical for our health and quality of life, especially as we age.
According to the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, one in four adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated which increases the risk of dementia by an estimated 50%, heart disease by 29%, and stroke by 32%. Additionally, research shows that older adults can experience isolation symptoms such as pain, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and a shorter life span.
Individuals who frequently report experiencing loneliness face a risk of developing depression that is more than twice that of those who rarely or never feel lonely, particularly within the older adult population.
To best counter the potential impacts of isolation and loneliness and embrace the full physical and emotional benefits of relationships, we must think about the complete picture – ensure we make the opportunity to connect and that those connections matter. Friendships, of all types, are central to this.
These relationships can look like steady life partners, supportive friends and family, spiritual leaders, and community groups. While making new friends can feel awkward at first, with no clear place to start, you might be surprised how many options we can find with a little effort and energy directed in the right way.
Every person has a unique set of passions and interests that can be the perfect place to start when thinking about meeting new friends and increasing your activity levels. This can include meeting new people through volunteer activities, signing up for group exercise classes, and participating in activities that include a common interest such as gardening, art, or language.
You may also consider reaching out to a local organization, charity, or community center that has a mission that resonates with you or your interests. No matter what you choose, engaging in shared experiences fosters a sense of community and helps develop these new connections.
Whether you are living in a senior living community, alone, or with family members, embrace your neighbors and say “hi” next time you are out. Take a moment to ask about their day, what they are up to and engage in a personal dialogue instead of rushing on to your next venue or activity.
You may be surprised to learn they share a common interest that you can bond over. Head down to your local coffee shop or bakery for regular mornings out and get to know the people who work and are engaged in your community. They will appreciate it and so will you.
When connecting with people in your life – especially grandchildren or even children, it can often help to have a standing date for everyone to look forward to and ensures weeks don’t slip by. The power of intergenerational friendships, kinship, and companionship goes both ways.
Years can pass but most friendships can stand the test of time. Reach out to old friends that still live in the area or make a phone date with your longtime friend that lives further away. Not only is it comforting to speak with someone who has known you for some time, it can be fun to reminisce on the past. Reconnecting with old friends on social media is another great option.
These are just a few of the many ways we can make new friendships and now couldn’t be a better time to explore these ideas or others as we head into summer.
If you are a caregiver and worried about a friend or family member you know is struggling, the first step is to talk to the person and ask how they are feeling. Encourage them to stay connected and engaged with others by getting out in the community.
If they have difficulty with mobility, offer to help them stay connected with others through technology, such as video chats or phone calls, and even social media. Help set up their phone with a list of their contacts, so they have easy access to reach out to their loved ones.
Assist them by setting up transport to be able to get them out of the house to an event, church, the mall, a senior center, day stay centers, or a support group. Never hesitate to help schedule an appointment with their doctor or another health care professional to ensure everyone is on the best track.
If you are asking yourself about loneliness or isolation, reach out for support whether it be a family member, friend, spiritual leader, or your doctor right away. It’s never too soon and always better to get in front of a potential issue.
What are you doing to stay connected to your friends, family, and community? Where is one place where you met a new friend unexpectedly? What could you do this week to form a new connection?