The gnawing need for meaningful relationships is a survival signal. Just like a fever, it should not be ignored.
People need people. Human beings are wired to be a part of something more than themselves, instinctively uniting as couples, bonding as families, joining groups, building cities and creating civilizations. A social species, people who are forced to live in isolation or even just perceived social isolation (loneliness) do not fare well.
Numerous studies link loneliness to a myriad of undesirable health conditions that put individuals at risk for a variety of physical and mental health ailments, from high blood pressure to dementia. The need to connect is so strong that without it, we fall apart.
One does not have to live alone to feel lonely. Freshmen in college are not alone, but often feel that ache of loneliness. Even married people can feel lonely. A recent study by the University of California, San Francisco, surveyed 1,604 people over the age of 60, asking if they felt lonely. Forty-three percent of participants reported they were indeed lonely. Of those, only 18 percent lived alone.
According to a study commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), chronic loneliness is on the rise. Millions of Americans (age 45 and older) have the self-perpetuating affliction. Some 3,000 participants rated themselves using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Thirty-five percent were chronically lonely, compared to 20 percent in a similar survey conducted a decade earlier. Loneliness was equally prevalent no matter one’s race, gender or education level. Those in their 40s and 50s suffered the most.
Loneliness and depression are not the same thing. However, being lonely can lead to depression. Loneliness makes you want to reach out and connect to others. Depression tends to make people withdraw. The gnawing need for meaningful relationships is a survival signal. Just like a fever, it should not be ignored.
When I (Barbara) started feeling blue on a somewhat frequent basis, I self-diagnosed the affliction as depression. Oddly, my “depression” was most acute when my husband worked a long weekend shift. I would often spend 15 hours every Saturday, and again on Sunday, at home not seeing another person. Once Jim returned home, my “depression” miraculously vanished.
I craved the company of another human being. My hermit-like existence was making me lonely.
My “a-ha” moment released me from the gloom. Like a mathematician who excitedly announces an amazing new equation, I discovered isolation leads to loneliness. While researchers say that loneliness is not the same as being alone, I believe people with disabilities — especially those with limited mobility — often feel lonely due to their physical isolation. There is a difference between choosing solitary time and being forced to stay at home because you are unable to leave.
Participating in activities outside of the home can be difficult for a variety of reasons: lack of transportation, inaccessible buildings, medical constrictions, etc. As my physical condition has worsened, I have seen my world shrinking. I won’t drive more than a few miles from my home. I need assistance with daily living skills — dressing, bathing, etc. Because I cannot transfer without assistance, it’s impossible to use a public restroom. I find myself spending increasing amounts of time alone at home, and it’s not healthy.
Everyone occasionally feels lonely. While several books suggest strategies for overcoming loneliness, the obstacles for people with disabilities can be more complicated and require more creative problem-solving.
Join a group: The best types fit your interests. I’ve taken painting classes, attended Bible studies and participated in a book club. Many of these activities can be held in your home. Also, look for groups in your neighborhood, places of worship and the local library. One friend of mine serves on her homeowners’ association board, and another attends school board meetings.
Try something new: Check the newspaper for opportunities. Go to a farmer’s market, a festival or outdoor concert. Make a date with a friend or family member to accompany you. My library offers memoir writing classes, foreign film night and Scrabble matches. Take a leisure learning class at a community college. Check local stores such as Hobby Lobby, Lowe’s and Williams-Sonoma for classes. Sign up for their mailing lists to receive announcements.
Start something new: What sort of group interests you? If it does not exist, start one. Perhaps you can organize a book club in your neighborhood or ask the library to offer one. I hired a local artist to teach classes in my home and two friends joined me, making it more affordable.
Ask for help: People are willing to assist, but don’t know what you need unless you tell them. Need help with a portable ramp? Plan ahead, and always carry a cell phone.
Volunteer: Every community needs volunteers. Call the organizations you wish to support or those that interest you to see how you can help. A neighboring town has an annual arts festival, and volunteers do everything from greeting the artists to driving a golf cart. Some volunteering also can be done from home, such as making phone calls scheduling people to give blood.
Open your home: If it is too difficult for you to go out, invite people over. Offer your home for meetings and gatherings. Host a lunch or have a party. Keep the cost and effort low by asking everyone to bring a dish. Invite neighbors and friends over for coffee, a glass of wine or a card game.
Be patient and consistent: Friendships take time to develop.
Connect in small ways: Take time to ask the cashier about her day. Smile at people. Go where it is acceptable to sit, such as a coffee shop, bookstore, library or park. Just being around other people can raise my sense of well-being.
Use technology wisely: Facebook and email are tools to connect with others, but they are not a replacement for face-to-face interactions. When I can’t meet in person, I still prefer the telephone to texting or instant messaging. (Note: Skype and FaceTime allow you to see the person to whom you are talking.)
Feeling lonely is normal. Becoming a recluse and living in isolation is not. Now that I understand my most difficult days are the weekends when my husband works, I can anticipate them and plan accordingly. I schedule home repair and maintenance projects on those days, make lunch dates with friends, and run errands just to get out of the house. On weekends, I telephone long-distance friends and family. These are my strategies for coping with loneliness. For me, too much time alone can become depressing because I am a person who needs people.
Everyone’s circumstances are different. I would love to hear how you combat loneliness.
Barbara and Jim Twardowski are freelance writers and frequent Quest contributors who live in Mandeville, La. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease and uses a power wheelchair full time. Send your comments to them via firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “Loneliness.”