Written by Nikki Goldstein, MSW, executive director, Crown Center for Senior Living
All the lonely people
where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
where do they all belong? Beatles, Eleanor Rigby
There are a myriad of programs, classes, events, and activities just waiting for someone to register; the list of options for involvement, connecting and engaging with others seems endless. Yet many adults in America are lonely. Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, Cigna, the health insurance company, conducted a nationwide survey and found that “nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.”
Should you believe that having a mobile device and internet service are the answers to stave off isolation, think again. In the age of unprecedented technology that allows us access to people and places around the world—and beyond—research shows that “virtual” cannot replace “real” when it comes to interpersonal interaction.
Loneliness is a public health threat with a measurable financial cost; which explains why a health insurance firm would undertake and fund a massive study. The negative health effects of loneliness are serious and include higher risks for heart disease and stroke and lowered ability to resist and fight disease. It isn’t only older people who are lonely, but older adults must overcome some especially daunting barriers in order to feel less solitary.
Just as an infection isn’t cleared up when the antibiotics are still at the pharmacy, the ill effects of loneliness are not mitigated simply because a robust menu of programmatic options for retirees is available. Obstacles for older adults to successfully participate in groups with others include lack of adequate financial resources for participation fees and membership dues; lack of accessible, convenient transportation; and facilities and gathering places that don’t accommodate physical and sensory impairments. Add in other challenges such as having limited English language skills, and the participation barricade seems unscalable.
But even if all of these hurdles are removed, there exists a not so obvious hindrance to social interaction. I’ve seen the enemy, and she is me. Lack of confidence in one’s own social skills may be the silent impediment to overcoming isolation. A 2015 study in the United Kingdom concludes that “social participation amongst lonely older people will not improve through the removal of previously reported barriers alone; instead, older peoples’ beliefs, fears and identities must be addressed”.
Creating a welcoming, inviting, warm atmosphere is a key to helping people cross the Rubicon from isolation to social connectedness. Just like in the old television show Cheers, we want to go where everybody knows our name. I believe that the most important component of the fight against loneliness is outreach. We must arm our organizations with the people power to take on the task of ensuring that people are personally invited, welcomed, introduced to others, noticed for attending, and are noticed when they’re not attending.
Though the venue and content of programs matter, the most important aspect of programming is helping people connect with others. Don’t leave this to chance—don’t assume this is the responsibility of the participant. It is the duty of the leaders—paid or volunteer—to identify who is missing; who needs encouragement to join; who feels fearful of the social setting; who is standing alone; who is not interacting with others. It is our responsibility to be the conduit to engagement. Don’t underestimate the power of a sincere link to change the situation of an older person—helping them take the leap from alone to involved in life. Here’s a way our social service agencies, community centers, organizations and religious institutions can improve our world by improving the situation of individuals.
After all, “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.” I’m inviting you.