Loneliness: How lonely am I and What can I do about it?

December 1, 2020

Loneliness is a public health issue. It was before the COVID-19 epidemic forced us into social isolation. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness a “growing health epidemic,” and even wrote a book about it – Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness.

Image of the back of a woman on a city street.

In the United Kingdom they take this issue very seriously and now have a Minister of Loneliness. Sophie Andrews started an organization called The Silver Line which is a helpline for lonely and isolated seniors.

Does loneliness impact those with chronic illness and/or disability more than the general population? Curious to know how you rate on the Loneliness Scale or maybe you’d like to take a quick quiz for a less robust assessment.

In this podcast episode we explore that question as well as the antidotes for loneliness. In this presentation for the University of Utah’s Program for Inherited Neuromuscular Disorders, I discuss how I’ve handled social isolation during the pandemic.

My friend, David, talks about the Big & Mini online program he’s become involved with as well as Quarantine Chat.

Although geared toward an older audience, Humana has a toolkit full of ideas on how to combat loneliness.

Loose Transcript

This podcast episode is about Loneliness. My interest in this topic was sparked a year ago when I heard a British woman – Sophie Andrews – speak at an event I attended. She had already done a TED Talk two years earlier. Her story is a captivating one, which I won’t go into now; you can check out her 15-miin video online. But due to her early life experiences, she learned how a listening ear can change someone’s life direction. She founded an organization called The Silver Line which is a helpline for lonely and isolated seniors.

In Sophie’s talk – as well as in subsequent articles and books that have been written – we learn how loneliness is of epidemic proportion. Research studies have found that loneliness and social isolation is often correlated to high mortality rates and deterioration of both physical and mental health. In the UK the concern about this public health issue has launched a new government position – the Minister of Loneliness. Seriously. In 2018, Tracey Crouch became the world’s first person to assume this role.

The former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, called loneliness a “growing health epidemic,” and this past April his book, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness, was published. I have the book, started reading it but unfortunately I’m far from finishing it.

 

But, earlier this year, I was taking my first-ever class in public health – at a community college in downtown Berkeley —  and decided my final project for the class would focus on loneliness in the chronic illness and/or disability community. I was curious to find out if this was similar to what is explored with older people as well compared to the general population. Is Loneliness more common in our community regardless of age?

 

On March 1st of this year, I posted a poll in the Glass Half Full Facebook group with 6 responses to the question, “Do you experience a sense of Loneliness?” It’s a small sample but the response, “Yes, I often feel lonely even though I have friends and family” received the most votes followed by “My loneliness is a symptom of being homebound with limited exposure to people outside of my family.” Personally, I don’t know most of the respondents though two of them I do know. They’re both caregivers. And they’re lonely.

 

And just as I was starting my research, I stopped going to the class due to the pandemic. How ironic to be taking a public health class that is pre-empted by a pandemic that creates an even more powerful experience of loneliness and isolation.

 

I did have time to gather a few academic research articles relevant to the topic but it is certainly not an exhaustive body of literature. I have no definitive answer to the question – is loneliness greater for those with chronic illness and/or disability? I mean, right now…so many of us have dramatically changed our social networks. Hopefully, many of us have found some solace online; I mean the Zoom stock has skyrocketed. I use Zoom almost daily. But, I digress.

 

The five research articles I found are from different journals – Cognition and Emotion, Caring Sciences, Social Psychiatry, Social Behavior and Personality, and Community and Applied Social Psychology. Three are European studies – Dutch, Danish, and Norwegian — and one Canadian and one from the U.S.

 

Most of these article reference Robert Weiss who in 1973 conceptualized loneliness as perceived social isolation and described it as a gnawing, chronic disease without redeeming features. He identified six social human needs that if not satisfactorily met lead to feelings of loneliness. The needs are Attachment, Social Integration, Nurturance, Reassurance of worth, Sense of reliable alliance, and guidance in stressful situations.

 

So if you start with Weiss and his theory on loneliness from 1973 you can find 47 years’ worth of discussion. But, I didn’t dig deeper and I assume you won’t either.

 

So…isn’t loneliness normal at different times in our lives? Like, depression is something many of us have experienced from time to time. I’ve gone through brief periods of depression linked to an unfortunate experience but I’m not clinically depressed. I’ve also experienced a sense of loneliness at different times. Although I had many friends throughout grade school, I really didn’t feel heard or understood until my first year of college when I embarked on my first true romantic relationship. That’s a powerful feeling and unfortunately, more rare than I’d care to admit.

 

Robert Weiss, in fact, does make a distinction between social loneliness and emotional loneliness. Perhaps right now, during the pandemic, many people feel more of a sense of social isolation but still maintain a sense of emotional contact through the phone, internet, or at a six foot distance.

 

I can remember being at parties, surrounded by friends and acquaintances, and feeling alone. Just not in the groove of connecting with others. And I’ve been in situations where I was surrounded by dogs – at someone’s home when a party was taking place – and finding solace and connectedness with the dogs, rather than the people. Okay, that was a slightly drug-enhanced experience. But, the point is…being alone and lonely are not synonymous. And feeling lonely can be temporary or in some cases, the norm.

 

Let me get back to these articles I read. Only two of the five were specifically related to people with chronic illness and/or disability. In the Danish study they wanted to find out who were high risk groups for loneliness. They used a self-report survey with over 33,000 Danish citizens and found these factors were associated with a higher risk of severe loneliness – being a member of an ethnic minority group, receiving disability benefits or unemployment, living alone, having a prolonged mental disorder or psychiatric treatment. Severe loneliness was reported for just under 5% of those responding to the survey. Another 16+ % of the group were classified as moderately lonely.

 

One article teases out the distinction between solitude and loneliness whereas solitude expresses the glory of being alone. This article also briefly examines social isolation among the non-human animal kingdom and cites studies where fruit fly’s lifespan was shortened, obesity and type 2 diabetes developed in mice, the immune system of pigs was impacted, and other negative physical responses in a number of animals – all due to social isolation. The Canadian study compared a group of 274 adults with physical disabilities (MS, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and “other”) with a group of 319 healthy adults without chronic illness. Each participant responded to the Loneliness Questionnaire and sure enough there was a statistically significant difference for people with chronic illness. They had a greater experience of loneliness as compared to the general population.

 

So…what’s the antidote? What can we do about it?

 

Before I skip to the brighter side of this theme, are you wondering how lonely you are? I mean, how do you compare the experience of loneliness? We all have different expectations from our varied social networks. And I’m not talking about the movie with Jesse Eisenberg portraying Mark Zukerberg. A social network, or support network, or social circle, essentially refers to humans in your orbit. A network of social interactions and personal relationships. This may include family, work colleagues, friends, or even the barista at the coffee shop you frequented every day…before the pandemic.

 

I tend to think of my social network as the people in all of my disparate little communities – my life partner, my neighbors whom I tend to see more frequently than most friends now, all of my Zoom buddies from dance and exercise classes, book club, support group, happy hour with my high school graduating class…

 

I strongly believe that my ever-expanding panoply of small groups helps me combat loneliness, helps me be resilient. Sometimes I don’t feel these connections as deeply intimate; I mean, how close can you be to many people? I’m not saying quantity wins out over quality…but…over time I have re-adjusted my expectations.

 

But let me get back to the antidote. I hope to shed light on all types of resources and inspirations for you to mitigate some of the loneliness you may experience.

 

So, how lonely are you? right…that was a question I posed. Considered the Gold Standard, the UCLA Loneliness Scale is a 20-item scale designed to measure one’s subjective feelings of loneliness as well as feelings of social isolation. I’ve provided a link to this in the podcast notes at the Glass Half Full website. There’s also a shorter, and less robust, quiz available at the website. I scored 19 which puts me at average for feelings of loneliness.

 

But how you score isn’t really important. It’s how you feel.

 

Last week I received a sample issue of O in the mail with my AARP magazine. O is Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. I was flipping through the magazine and saw an advertisement for a special O supplement called The Power of Connection: Your Guide to overcoming loneliness, building community, and finding joy in every day. Now, I’m not suggesting you go out and buy this. It’s pricey; I got it on Amazon. And I certainly don’t profit from this announcement…no free cars for me. But, it’s pretty good. Far easier to digest than the research journal articles I read and most of the short articles reflect solid research. And there’s stuff in there – antidotes for loneliness — that I’ve talked about – book clubs, exercise classes, support groups. Hell! Maybe Oprah’s been listening to the Glass Half Full?

 

The antidote is Connection. We are social animals. We need each other. Sure, there are introverts and extroverts. But…whatever dosage you require, we still need each other. And pets are great. We’ve got five cats. I love them. But, I still need to connect with other humans. To laugh. To converse. To listen to and be listened to. Even to argue with.

 

Sometime last year I listened to a podcast interview with Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general I mentioned earlier. I believe he said, “Loneliness is a subjective discrepancy between our actual level of social connection and our desired level of connection.” We’re all different in terms of how much connectivity we require. He spoke of a few antidotes but stressed one solution is serving other people. It shifts the focus away from you and reaffirms that you have value to offer.

 

In October I spoke at an online conference for the University of Utah’s Program for Inherited Neuromuscular Disorders. The title of my presentation was Making Connections. I spoke about my early experiences of forming social networks and what I’ve been able to cultivate during the pandemic. I invite you to check it out; perhaps it will spark some ideas for you?

 

One of my friends, David, has found unique ways to connect with others during this period. David lives alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau survey in 2018, 28% of households in the U.S. are occupied by only one person, and this number is increasing. David doesn’t have a chronic illness or disability but, as I said, he lives alone and is a young older person. In one of the research articles I read for this topic the researchers assigned names for different age groups; apparently I’m middle-aged, at least for two more years. And David, who is ten years older than me, is a young, older person.

 

Anyhow, we had a conversation about two things he’s discovered during the pandemic – Quarantine Chat and Big and Mini.

 

If you check the Glass Half Full website there’s a link to a video about the Big & Mini program featured on the Today morning show where David makes a cameo appearance.

 

Another antidote for loneliness that I gleaned from an article in a magazine is to focus on increasing your circle of concerns as opposed to your circle of friends. It helps shift your focus to a collective connectedness where you can feel a part of something bigger than yourself.

And on that note, I wish you well.

 

 

 

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Glass Half Full with Leslie Krongold, Ed.D. © 2018