What if I told you that a widespread disease — a top killer of our elderly — was easily curable? And what if YOU were the cure?
The disease is loneliness. According to multiple international studies, loneliness is more serious than cancer or heart disease. Our surgeon general says its effects are our country’s greatest public-health crisis.
Some background: In human evolution, when our survival depended on being part of a social group or tribe, isolation from the pack was a huge risk to individual survival. Over centuries, as a defense, our primordial brains and DNA shaped our innate need for social belonging.
That’s why one researcher compared our pain of loneliness to our “primal pain of hunger — a biological signal that something is wrong.”
Chronic loneliness leads to panicked fight-or-flight stress, resulting in decreased production of leukocytes (disease-fighting immune cells). This opens the door to greater risk for infections, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and a multitude of other illnesses.
And it’s the elderly who are the most effected. A recent UC San Francisco study revealed that 43 percent of California’s seniors report, “… feeling lonely on a regular basis.”
Here are some reasons:
Local seniors have had to move away from their homes and families to another state where housing and care is cheaper.
When seniors outlive their spouses, family and friends, their social circle grows ever smaller — like a noose.
Some socially isolated seniors become so anxious they act out negatively toward others, making it harder for them to create new relationships.
Then there’s retirement, lack of disposable income, no transportation, and physical impediments that make it more difficult — and embarrassing — to circulate.
Unfortunately, as a country, we are doing nothing to alleviate this problem compared to England with its national Campaign to End Loneliness.
But here is how YOU can be the cure of senior loneliness.
Most local nonprofits, churches, service organizations or foundations, including ours, are linked to activities that serve socially isolated seniors. Contact them and tell them you want to help an individual senior or volunteer for a group.
Then bond with these seniors, making them feel understood and valued:
Regularly call or email your new buddy.
Provide a ride.
Consider helping them rescue a pet.
Visit with them, check in, help them out.
Surprise them with mail.
Make sure they follow up on their appointments.
Engage in a group activity you both enjoy.
Include them during the holidays.
Introduce them to others.
In most cases, the cure is simply reinforcing the message to seniors that — stealing a lyric from our one-time neighbor — “you are not alone.”
By now you know that most of my reality checks bounce. But I had a doozy while writing this, wondering why there’s a need for a column about loneliness in our 24/7 instant connection world.
Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey — the first female Fellow and Polynesian explorer in the history of the National Geographic Society — answered my question: “We live in a society bloated with data yet starved for wisdom.”
Until next time … keep thinking the good thoughts.
— For more than 30 years, Rona Barrett was a pioneering entertainment reporter, commentator and producer. Since 2000, she has focused her attention and career on the growing crisis of housing and support for our aging population. She is the founder and CEO of the Rona Barrett Foundation, the catalyst behind Santa Ynez Valley’s first affordable senior housing, the Golden Inn & Village. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.