In 2007, genomics researcher Steve Cole from UCLA School of Medicine released a study that showed very lonely people have blood cells in a high state of alert which mirrored how cells would react to a bacterial infection. That study prompted extended work in the field of loneliness. According to Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, the absence of a social network has very real consequences in terms of mental and physical health.
Not only is there a physical and mental cost to individuals who feel isolated, but according to a study conducted at the AARP Public Policy Institute and at Stanford and Harvard universities, people living in social isolation add almost $7 billion to the cost of Medicare.
But loneliness haunts not just seniors receiving Medicare. Last year this time, I spoke to student leaders and professional staff at a highly respected college of engineering. The theme was “Navigating the Valleys”. The concern was how do student leaders and staff develop interventions and programs to reduce a rise in student suicides and a rise in reports of disconnection, rejection, and isolation. The rise of student suicides and isolation are not singular to this university but are seen across the United States.
In short, loneliness short-circuits any ability to grow through challenge or opportunity. Loneliness weakens an ability to be resilient as surely as it weakens one’s immune system.
What can be done about this?
While there is talk about a national commitment to explore approaches to reduce isolation and loneliness among elders, we as individuals can also take matters into our own hands to either chip away at our personal loneliness or to help those in our immediate circle.
The quickest way out of a sense of loneliness is to help yourself by helping others. Moving from self-absorption to other-absorption, requires you to realize that others can benefit from your skills and wisdom. The website VolunteerMatch.org offers helping opportunities that match your skills with others’ needs. But you don’t need anything formal.
Take time to help a neighbor bring in the trash can. Carry groceries for someone who seems to be struggling with the load. I heard of a man who had lost his sight but loved reading. I called and offered to read once a week to him.
Take a class. Whether exercise class, writing class, how to code—anything that interests you. It will put you with people who share a similar interest.
Keep a journal. Might sound silly but Rosemary Blieszner, a professor at Virginia Tech, believes that writing an autobiographical works helps lonely people deal with feelings that they don’t matter.
Another article I've written that you may enjoy is "A Resiliency Killer: Loneliness" you can read it here.