The cost of feeling lonely

Editor’s note: This column is part one of a five-part series about issues facing senior citizens.

Rosalind is a 78-year-old resident of Hancock County. She lives just outside of Greenfield in an older home on a little-traveled county road. Five years ago she lost her husband to complications after a stroke. She now lives alone, is somewhat frail, is losing weight and worries about her own health. Her failing eyesight means she can no longer drive. Of her three children, only one lives in the state. He is almost two hours away.

Rosalind came to the attention of Hancock County Senior Services following a concerned phone call from a friend and fellow church member who had not seen Rosalind in several weeks. Rosalind’s friend worried that she was not getting out and must be lonely. Senior Services was able to intervene and provide Rosalind with services and suggestions described later in this series.

Rosalind is just one of a growing number of elderly citizens who are impacted by isolation and loneliness. Studies tell us that, increasingly, loneliness and isolation are serious public health issues existing worldwide. The World Health Organization states that “social isolation and exclusion are associated with increased rates of premature death, lower general well-being, more depression and a higher level of disability from chronic diseases.”

Loneliness is part of the human condition. Each of us has experienced this unwelcome emotion at some point in our lives. Loneliness is a lack of connection and communication with other beings. One can be in a room filled with hundreds of people, yet feel lonely. Conversely, a person can be alone or solitary for a span of time and not feel lonely. Loneliness is the subjective sense of feeling separate, “unplugged” and uncared for.

Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying social isolation for 30 years. He said loneliness harms health equally to smoking or alcoholism and is more severe than not exercising or obesity.

Loneliness means the loss of hope, energy and the potential for positive social contribution to communities, he said. He also pointed out that socially connected individuals rarely experience loneliness and those who perceive high levels of social support tend to have more coping strategies, greater self-esteem and an increased sense of control over their lives.

Social isolation is a cousin of loneliness. Social isolation can be seen and objectively measured. If one lives in the countryside, miles away from any other beings and has no visitors and does no visiting, one can be said to be socially isolated. Loneliness and isolation do not have to co-exist. If a person is lonely but not socially isolated, opportunities exist to mitigate that loneliness. If, however, a person is socially isolated (lonely or not), there may be little chance of easing social isolation.

A study conducted at the University of York in the UK also found that loneliness and isolation have a direct impact on older people’s health and lifespan. This population demonstrates an increased use of healthcare resources, a higher likelihood of needing long-term care and a detrimental impact to the quality of life with a higher risk of premature death.

Some causes of isolation are medically driven and include: mild emotional anxiety, psychological disorders (panic disorder and agoraphobia), alcoholism, depression, personality disorders and incontinence.

Risk factors for isolation and loneliness are poor health, disabilities, gender, aging, place of residence, poverty, loss of spouse, living alone, impaired hearing or vision, loss of social networks, lack of transportation and low self-esteem.

In its study, the University of York identified its own key risk factors for loneliness. These are: living alone, being divorced/never married, living on a low income, or living in residential care. Risk factors of “transitions” are mentioned: bereavement, becoming a care-giver or giving up care-giving, retirement, cognitive impairment, and immobility.

The York study goes on to tell us that the subjective experience of loneliness can lead to anger, sadness, depression, feelings of worthlessness, resentment, emptiness, vulnerability and pessimism. These factors can alter behavior resulting in risky habits, suicide, pushing others away and increased risk for dementia.

Follow this article and news about what happens to Rosalind in Part II coming soon.

Kit Paternoster is the outreach coordinator for Hancock County Senior Services. Questions or comments may be addressed to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.