Loneliness: Unrecognized and Growing
Did you know that an increasing amount of research is showing that loneliness is as physically dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? The simple phenomenon of being persistently lonely contributes to cognitive decline, including a more rapid advance of Alzheimer's disease. Many of our seniors and others are literally dying out of despair and the inability to fill the hole of loneliness that millions of Americans are experiencing today.
The signs and symptoms are everywhere. While we used to fill our imaginations with much the same thing back in the 1950s and 60s, such as, "I Love Lucy," when 70 percent of TVs were tuned into that and other similar sitcoms, today 93 percent of Americans have access to more than 500 channels. The "common factors" we once all shared as a nation have become less and less over time so that many of us are now challenged to find something in common to talk about when we do gather at events or family outings. Many Americans have separated into religious or political groups that leave out those who don't identify with them.
It's interesting to note that over the last quarter century, entertaining at home has declined among Americans by 50 percent. It seems that social media has hyperconnected younger generations but as a society we've become physically disconnected as a result. Many prefer to now send a text to a friend or family member rather than make a simple phone call that might take up more of their time. It's easy to look around and see most people either on their phones or checking them constantly even when they're physically with a group of friends or having dinner out with someone special.
But the real victims of this social isolation are seniors who aren't comfortable with smart phones or know much about FaceBook, Instragram or SnapChat. It's this generation that are being increasingly left behind in the mad hyperconnection rush that typifies our society today. We are in a period of isolation unheralded in modern times.
What should be easily recognized is that everyone just wants to be needed, including the elderly. While there's no going back to the "hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night" connectedness many Americans shared in decades past, there are many ways we can all still physically connect with another human being.
One of the most important might be setting aside time to visit an elderly parent or grandparent on a regular basis (at least weekly?). Taking them out for some kind of activity, i.e., church, shopping, a stroll in the park, lunch, a movie, etc., is a wonderful way to connect with one another. Looking at ways to reconnect physically with our families and friends takes a new habit of mind and heart but it can start with just the simple act of calling someone rather than texting them. If we hope to stop this epidemic of loneliness, it's time for a change.