Approximately one-fourth of Americans over the age of 65 live alone. By the time they reach age 85, this will increase to around one-half of senior citizens who are living alone. What most of them do not realize is that living alone increases their risk of an early death by 32 percent, regardless of any other health issues they may have. Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. Loneliness also lowers the quality of life for many senior citizens and even increases Medicare costs. Why does loneliness create so many problems, and what can we do to reduce the negative effects and avoid dying of loneliness?
The Disease of Loneliness
Steve Cole, a researcher with UCLA, discovered that the blood cells of very lonely people behave the same way they would if they were under assault from a bacterial infection. In other words, at the molecular level, lonely people appear to have a serious disease.
According to a report in AARP Magazine in the January 2020 issue, studies have shown that lonely people are more likely to die from heart disease. They are also more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In addition, they are more vulnerable to high blood pressure, suicide, and even the common cold. The issue is so severe that it is estimated that loneliness costs Medicare an extra $7 billion a year, often because of the longer hospital stays caused by the lack of family support at home.
Loneliness can cause physical pain and inflammation, and this can also lead to tissue breakdown and impairment of the immune system.
Most people who live alone are in denial that they are lonely, despite the fact that they may spend very little time with other people. A person living alone may insist that they are not lonely, but the fact remains that people who live alone tend to have shortened lifespans.
Psychological Impact of Loneliness
Being lonely can cause an inflammatory response in our white blood cells, and the impact on our brain can cause a person to become more irritable, defensive, self-centered and suspicious. In turn, these negative emotions cause lonely people to push people away, fear meeting anyone new, joining organizations, or initiating new friendships. It is not their fault. It is a common side effect of living alone.
Lonely people are more like to misread social signals and facial expressions or someone’s tone of voice. This can cause them to have a distorted view of the social world around them. As a result, a lonely person may unconsciously signal disinterest or hostility to other people, which makes them pull away from the person who is already lonely. Consequently, being lonely can breed even more loneliness.
Proven Ways to Combat Loneliness
The good news is that living alone does not have to result in pain, inflammation, irritability and disease, but only if they take action to reduce the impact of their loneliness. Here are some of the suggestions included in the AARP Magazine article on loneliness in their January 2020 edition.
Volunteer: Helping others can give you a sense of purpose and reduce your feelings of loneliness. It can also make you less self-centered and, because you are spending time with others, less lonely. Doing something for someone else makes us feel better about ourselves. It also helps us learn how to reach out to others and show a sincere interest in the well-being of other people. If you do not have a place of worship or belong to a community organization where you can volunteer, check the website VolunteerMatch.org for volunteer opportunities in your area. People are needed in by a great many non-profit organizations. You may be surprised at the opportunities available. I have a friend who volunteers weekly in a hospital nursery, just holding and rocking premature babies. Other friends volunteer in thrift stores, hospital gift shops, homeless shelters, food pantries and for other charitable causes. There are many ways to make a difference in the lives of others which, in turn, can help you.
Make an Effort to Meet Others: Do not just sit home alone, expecting other people to reach out to you. Join a club or organization where you will regularly come in contact with other people who have similar interests. Sign up for classes, especially if there is a discussion period involved. Many senior centers and local colleges offer these types of classes for seniors. If you cannot find something on your own, try to find a social group at Meetup.com. It is a site which will match you with people who have all kinds of interests, from people who are looking for others who want to socialize over dinner, go to movies, take hikes, play games, etc. I have known people who found Meetup groups for single parents, friends to play Bunco with, bridge partners, walking groups and other types of fun. It is very important that you meet people in person. Online friends are not a substitute for the ones you spend time with face-to-face. It also helps to seek friends you can build relationships with, not simply superficial connections.
You may also find it helpful to read the book “Here to Make Friends: How to Make Friends as an Adult.” (Ad) It will help you go beyond casual relationships and help you build connections which are meaningful. As you read the book, try putting their suggestions into action. Thinking about making friends is not enough. You need to take action.
In addition, you must do more than simply meet people. You need to learn how to show sincere curiosity about them and develop deeper relationships. Chatting with a waiter or a store clerk may seem friendly, but it is not the same as developing a true friendship. Ask questions and be genuinely interested in what is going on with the people you meet. Be willing to be open, friendly, and, most importantly, learn to become non-judgemental and non-critical. Accept others as they are; don’t try to change them, or you will only push them away. It may take practice, but these habits will make your relationships better.
Finally, if you join an established group, do NOT try to change them. Learning to be a good friend is learning how to adapt and join in the fun, not try to fix, change or improve other people. This will immediately push them away and cause them to exclude you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – If you find that you are having trouble making connections with others, research shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most . It could help you learn how your own assumptions and behaviors have been working against you and keeping you from connecting with other people in meaningful ways. It ceffective treatmentsan also help you learn new behaviors so you can have deeper, more personal, less critical friendships. Working with a behavioral therapist will also help you understand why you may be having difficulty with your friendships and other personal relationships. A therapist may also help you overcome your reluctance to change your living situation to one in which it will be easier for you to build connections with other people, and they can help you deal with any problems which may arise. You are never too old to learn how to make a friend and be a friend. A therapist can help.
Medications May Help – Some researchers have discovered that treating the actual physical pain and inflammation caused by loneliness can also make it easier for some people to feel less disconnected and lonely. Surprisingly, some common medications which have been used include acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen (Aleve), and the type of antidepressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Regular doses of these, often on a temporary basis, have been shown to be useful in reducing the physical pain and inflammation which sometimes cause lonely people to withdraw even more. These medications, along with other behavioral changes, can break the cycle in which loneliness results in physical pain and inflammation, and the pain causes people to shut others out, causing more loneliness. There is no shame in getting the help you need to break the cycle.
Whatever you try, it is important to disrupt the cycle of loneliness, because it not only can lower the quality of your life, but loneliness can be a killer.
More Ways to Reduce Your Loneliness
Although it was not mentioned in the AARP article, the obvious solution to the loneliness caused from living alone is to simply change your living situation to one where you maintain your privacy but you are not alone so much. Many older people who are divorced, widowed or alone for other reasons in their senior years have found it helpful to live in one of the hundreds of over-55 communities around the United States. These communities provide a wide variety of age-appropriate activities, clubs and classes, all of which are great opportunities to meet other people.
Some people have also discovered that they can improve the quality of their life by moving into a private independent living apartment in a Continuing Care Retirement Community, where they know they will receive any nursing assistance or personal care they need whenever they get ill … which is likely to happen more often as they age. The combination of a private apartment inside a community of other people, surrounded by helpful staff, often provides the best of both worlds for people as they age, especially if they are chronically ill, frail, or elderly. No one really wants to die alone, isolated from friends and family. The sooner you take steps to avoid that (and possibly dying of loneliness), the better off you will be.
Note: this article about Dying of Loneliness, originally appeared at baby-boomer-retirement.com/…/dying-of-loneliness-living-alone-canBaby Boomer Retirement and is republished with permission from the author.
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