Even in a room full of peers or a house full of family members, it is possible to feel lonely. That may be hard to believe until you look at the true meaning of the word “loneliness.”
Loneliness is not simply being alone; it is a feeling of being without meaningful connection to others. Loneliness is also dangerous to your health, especially if you are an older adult.
“Humans have an innate desire for social connection,” says Dr. Dara Schwartz, a clinical psychologist affiliated with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “And research shows that as we age, our need for emotional closeness increases while the number of our social relationships decreases, even if we’re not isolated or alone.”
However, there are several reasons older adults are at greater risk for feeling lonely than younger people. Seniors often live alone, are retired, lack transportation, have health concerns that limit mobility, and have financial difficulties. Friends and spouses may have passed away, and families have become more fragmented than in past decades, with relatives living in different locations.
Loneliness linked to health hazards
According to Dr. Schwartz, this loneliness can affect the health of seniors in many ways, both physical and mental. Loneliness can create a greater need for health care and be linked to higher use of health care services. Loneliness can also lead to:
- Heart problems
- Depression and anxiety
- Higher levels of stress
- Decreased memory
- Drug or alcohol abuse risk
- Brain changes, such as the development of dementia
- Thoughts of suicide
- Decrease in physical mobility
Connection: a form of self-care and health care
“The opposite of loneliness is connection,” Dr. Schwartz says. “It’s crucial to create connectedness in your life by having someone who affirms you, having face-to-face contacts that are rewarding, and believing that you are part of a group.”
According to Dr. Schwartz, one of the first steps to eliminate loneliness is to examine your thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to the connections — or lack of connections — you have and work to adjust them.
For example, if you lament that you are alone and don’t see the point in trying to make new connections, you are likely to make yourself feel worse and not try to improve the situation. However, if you can shift your thoughts to noting that you feel alone and don’t feel like trying to reach out to others, but resolve to make an effort to build connections, you will likely feel better about taking that first step, be driven to do more and continue to feel increasingly better.
Dr. Schwartz also recommends that you try the mnemonic “GRAPES” to lift your mood and increase your opportunities to improve feelings of loneliness:
- Gratitude — Practice gratitude by noting at least three things you’re grateful for each day.
- Relaxation — Try meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing and guided imagery to rest and restore your mind and body.
- Accomplishment — Note your daily accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem.
- Pleasure — Do at least one thing a day that makes you happy, such as petting a beloved pet or reading.
- Exercise — Try to get at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise every week and take time to train your brain, too. Learn a new language, do some tough math problems or play a brain game every day.
- Socialize — Make a point to get out among others. Join a support group, attend a class or volunteer.
“Sometimes you just have to push yourself,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Go to that new event, make that call, fill your calendar and do your GRAPES. There are a variety of resources to help you, from local senior centers to call centers and support groups. Find the resources and follow up.”
This article was inspired by a free San Diego Oasis presentation given by Dr. Dara Schwartz and sponsored by Sharp. Oasis supports successful and vibrant aging by offering more than 2,000 lifelong learning and healthy living classes for anyone over the age of 50. Learn more about membership and register for an upcoming class.