Great start to a Psychology Today article, a classic exchange between Lucy & Charlie Brown, who’s dropped by her psychiatry booth. He asks the pint-sized shrink, “Can you cure loneliness?”
“For a nickel, I can cure anything,” Lucy replies.
“Can you cure deep-down, black, bottom-of-the-well, no-hope, end-of-the-world, what’s-the-use loneliness?” he inquired.
“For the same nickel?!” she bellows.
And with that, the article is off & running, making its point that today’s world leave more & more people vulnerable to levels of loneliness, isolation, even alienation unimagined a generation ago, back when Lucy was peddling her psychiatric trade.
It’s going on twenty years since the alarm was sounded on how systemic, societal changes are driving us apart, a situation made infinitely worse by the introduction of the smartphone in 2007.
It’s bad enough that kids have sports leagues & traveling teams instead of pick up games in neighborhood yards, that they have to be driven to the store rather than walk or ride their bike to a corner market or soda counter. Kids are more likely to be at home, by themselves, playing video games than they are to be practicing an instrument or putting together model cars or airplanes. And look at what passes these days as dolls!
Here’s the dilemma that I see – my generation is hitting our sixties & seventies in an era where fewer & fewer youngers know how to connect with each other, let alone an older generation NEEDING connection & friendship.
Being alone & loneliness are very different things. In her upper 80s & early 90s, my mother often sat by herself in her big chair with the wide arms. She’s think about what she wanted to post that day as The Velveteen Grammie, or write to family or friends, or just spend time in quiet contemplation. She was alone – not lonely. Which was one reason she lived a long, full life.
Loneliness kills. Lack of social connection is a greater risk factor than obesity – and the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes (15) a day, per Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University.
And she says it’s getting worse.
Loneliness knows no age. More & more young people report feeling increased levels of social isolation. Texting is not the same as face-to-face talking & sharing experiences on Facebook isn’t the same as sharing them with another person.
Ironically, developed countries – especially the USA – are finding themselves more prone to the sting of isolation than people who actually live in remote, isolated villages. We have all this technology, but it’s combining with a lifestyle that encourages moves away rather than ties to friends & family.
From the article:
- Lonely people are more likely than the non-lonely to die from cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illness, and gastrointestinal causes—essentially, everything.
- Those with fewer than three people they can confide in and count on for social support are twice as likely to die from heart disease than those with more confidants.
- They were also roughly twice as likely to die of all causes, even when age, income, and smoking status were comparable.
- When lonely people get sick, they tend to suffer more severe symptoms than those who are socially connected.
Loneliness varies from person to person. My sister apparently thrived in a solitary setting, while our mother was beset with the blues after I married at 37 & settled in with John. She moved in with us – with John’s full approval – less than a year after a wedding.
I’m still grappling with the physical & emotional consequences of her death in 2001 – in literally a heartbeat, I lost not only my lifelong sidekick & buddy, her death took away her friends, her letter-writing buddies, her online dist list, even our family. John, also a solitary, understood my problem but couldn’t kiss this problem to make it all better. The best thing I did for my overall health was looking around & seeing the friends I have & making the conscious decision to forge deeper bonds.
Depression is less a risk factor for Alzheimer’s than loneliness, which is one reason why John & I are playfulness coaches, helping all ages connect with others, not just ourselves. When we’d take our beloved Anne to hear Barbara Trent’s jazz stylings at Centre Bridge Inn or down to Philadelphia’s Square On Square for the All-Star Jazz Trio, not only did the performers welcome her, so did all the regulars, who came to know, admire, love her. It gave them hope, seeing someone who clearly had dementia out & about, CONNECTING with others & with good times.
Yes, there were times throughout her day that Anne felt low, even lonely, but she always knew a good time was around the corner, that she’d be heading out with people who cared about her, whether it was to hear music in Center City or to have dinner in the downstairs Club Room, at a table filled with friends who delighted in her company & epic smile.
Loneliness naturally leads to a sense of depression, but it should be noted that depression does NOT naturally lead to a sense of isolation. It can, but not always. A sense of social connection can help a person beset with depression sidestep feeling alone.
We are apparently hardwired for connection. The relatively teeny tiny retirement village in my little hometown doesn’t offer the range of services or activities, amenities or on-demand transportation provided by nearby upmarket continuous care communities, but it has one priceless advantage over the best of them – – it is filled with people who have been part of an actual community, who have roots in the same church, even the same school system. I think of classmates, in their 90s, who have a cocktail hour every afternoon to which they invite lifelong friends & new arrivals. As their ranks winnow out, new younger friends – in their 80s – have taken up the torch, serving the same favorite beverages & making the peppered cream cheese spread just like Jim always brought. They’re blessed to be able to adapt & continue. Breakfast circles at the big & bigger senior residences are hard pressed to regroup when death or moving reduces their ranks.
I was blessed. In the midst of my isolation following Mom’s death, a loneliness that threatened to swallow me up, I had a husband who reminded me, gently & tenderly, of the friends in my life. What about today’s youngers? Are they developing those tight ties that help combat isolation rather than unintentionally increase it? How do we help the olders elders ancients in our lives continue to feel connected, even if they live hundreds, thousands of miles away? How do we help ourselves forge the ties that bind us to healthier, happier lives, now & later?
Good ponders, waiting for a future post!