Social isolation and loneliness significantly increase a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, obesity, and physical inactivity, according to experts.
On May 3, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared loneliness and isolation as a significant health epidemic in the United States. While this issue affects people of all ages, it particularly burdens Baby Boomers and older members of Generation X, as the nation’s social infrastructure is increasingly reliant on digital rather than in-person interactions.
The Surgeon General’s advisory proposes several societal changes to combat this epidemic, including strengthening the country’s social infrastructure and fostering a culture of better connection. However, individuals grappling with social isolation can take steps to improve their situation.
On June 16, The Longevity Project hosted a webinar titled “Solving the Loneliness Epidemic,” where four panelists that contributed to the Surgeon General’s report discussed their viewpoints on the epidemic and offered suggestions on how society and individuals can address it. While many solutions require community-wide efforts, here are a few steps that individuals can take today:
1. Find a happy medium with technology and its place in society.
The widespread use of technology often leads to feelings of disconnection among people. Certainly, a pandemic’s worth of Zoom calls, telemedicine and Netflix binging does not help dissuade this notion.
However, despite all of social media’s negative effects, its true purpose deep down, is to help people connect across long or short distances. That objective does not discriminate across generations.
“For older folks, particularly those who have limited mobility, the internet and digital media can actually provide an antidote to some of that loss of social connection,” said Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “It can actually be a positive factor if one has the technology and the resources to do that.”
According to the AARP, 71% of adults aged 50 or older use Facebook as their primary social media platform, and this is a great place to start. Facebook groups are a solid base for people to find others that may share similar interests. The groups can be as broad as anyone who is a fan of a particular sports team, or as narrow as those living in a certain neighborhood.
Finding groups that cater to your personal interests can lead to building connections with other members, learning about in-person events to attend or just simply having something to look forward to. The best part is that there is very little risk in joining, and if one puts effort into it, the potential for building connections can be high.
Technology and social media is often seen as the reason why people feel lonely in today’s society, but if you know where to look, social media can open up an entire world’s worth of connection.
2. Expand your intellectual horizons
An openness to new experiences is one of the broad dimensions that make up the human personality. With a Gallup poll finding that Americans generally are closed-minded when it comes to the information they consume, this can be seen as a contributing factor in becoming more lonely and socially isolated.
When people are not willing to try and understand the views of others, there is a connection and potential friendship that is lost.
“We know that in the media deserts that people live in these days, they only expose themselves to information that is essentially confirming what they already believe,” Reis said. “That, in turn, isolates people, because it limits the number of connections that you can have.”
For those suffering from loneliness and social isolation, making an honest attempt to begin considering new views on the world can be an accessible way to start figuring out a way to fix this epidemic.
And while it is accessible, it can be difficult due to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to selectively seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses while disregarding or downplaying contradictory evidence. And one’s natural desire to preserve their beliefs is inherently why open-mindedness is seemingly uncommon.
The Surgeon General’s report also addresses how individuals can cultivate a culture of connectedness:
“Actively engage with people of different backgrounds and experiences to expand your understanding of and relationships with others, given the benefits associated with diverse connections.”
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3. Research existing social programs in your community
Similar to how online communities like Facebook groups can help you find ways to be social online, there are likely several community programs in your own neighborhood that can help you build new connections, according to speaker Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.
Senior centers are a common, yet potentially overlooked portion of a town or city’s infrastructure. There are countless benefits they provide for older members of society, such as opportunities to be more social, reduced levels of depression and simply a place to belong.
Researching what a senior center or other community gathering place can provide may be a perfect way to put oneself out there. And for those who are concerned with transportation, towns frequently offer services to give seniors a ride to and from wherever they need to go, as they are entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Another one of the session’s speakers, Jillian Racoosin, Executive Director of the Foundation for Social Connection and the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, also emphasized how faith communities, like churches or synagogues, can play a role similar to senior centers as well.
If your town or a neighboring town provides these services, there is no risk in taking advantage of them and much to be gained.
4. Continue the conversation on loneliness
Another way individuals and others can fight through loneliness and social isolation is to simply spread the word about its existence.
“Loneliness is strongly attached to stigma, shame, guilt (and is) incredibly hard to talk about,” Dr. Kotwal said. “But having these open conversations, trying to remove that stigma in and of itself can be therapeutic and help build connections, which can help us brainstorm potential solutions for what might be really individual challenges.”
Addressing personal issues can lead to solutions that have the potential to work on a larger scale. Awareness plays a crucial role in addressing societal issues, and with the growing awareness surrounding mental health, it is essential to include loneliness in the conversation.
As Dr. Kotwal mentioned, increased discussion about loneliness has the potential to bring entire communities together, enabling them to tackle the problem directly.
How can these apply long-term?
While the aforementioned strategies are meant to get those struggling with social isolation started on the road to recovery, they can also contribute to long-term solutions. These four suggestions actually fall in line with several of the Surgeon General’s plans to solve the loneliness epidemic.
Using social networks such as Facebook in positive ways can help reform the digital environment into a space where people can actually be social. Becoming a more open-minded population can help create a more connected culture. Supporting local community centers, such as senior centers, can help strengthen our social infrastructure. And informing others about the problem of loneliness in society can be a way to deepen our knowledge and build connections on the way to the full solution.
If done right alongside the people in our communities, all of this can contribute to a future where loneliness is eradicated and positive connections can be formed across the U.S. as well as the world.
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