HOW TO OVERCOME LONELINESS

Julie was lonely. The man she had lived with for 10 years had slowly developed dementia. As a result, he moved to his daughter’s. Even though it was the “right” thing to do she ached with loneliness.

Joel’s wife had been bedridden for three years. He visited her daily but was lonely for the life they had had.

A young woman returning from Afghanistan was living in her car trying to figure out next steps. She was frightened and lonely.

Mario, married with three children, was lonely. He and his wife did not really communicate. It had become a marriage of convenience.

Talia told me, “I get excited about new ventures, irrelevant when I feel my voice is no longer heard, fear when I think about the future, especially loneliness and death.”

“Yes, I am lonely. It is a theme of my life. I came to America as a teenager and have always felt like odd person out. I stand on the outside. That means loneliness is ever present.”

Psychology Today’s lead article by Jennifer Latson in the April 2018 issue highlights the loneliness epidemic Everywhere you hear and read about loneliness—whether it is on NPR radio, the Washington Post, current books, a report of a recent speech by the CEO of AARP. Surprisingly, the UK has appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Storefront “cuddle” shops and individual “cuddle providers” where someone can pay for a non-sexual hugging session dramatizes the desperate need for human contact and touching (Bahrampour T. Washington Post, April 26, 2018, B1.) According to a recent survey of AARP members,”35 percent are chronically lonely…compared with 20 percent … a decade ago.”. Brad Edmonson’s article, “All the Lonely People” (AARP The Magazine, November/December 2010) reviewed the data, concluding that loneliness is unfortunately “an equal opportunity affliction–” one thatcan even compromise one’s health. In fact, the late John Cacioppois, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, studied the negative impact of loneliness on the immune system. 

Even though we recognize the enormous toll loneliness takes, it was not until I read Robert Weiss’s book, Loneliness:The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation (MIT press, 1973) that I was able to understand my own and others’ experiences. Weiss identified two forms of loneliness both resulting from what he labels a “relational deficit” (p. 18).  The first, emotional isolation arises when an intimate relationship is interrupted by death or other problems. I can relate to that. When my husband died after 50 years of marriage I felt bereft. The second kind is loneliness results from social isolation–a break in one’s social network. For example: Bernice felt very much part of her community as she was central to the development of a non-profit start-up. After four years, the startup failed. Since then there have been several new initiatives and she has not been part of those. “I have lost my social network.” Whether you are pining for a significant other, or lonely for a social group it is your subjective assessment that makes the difference (Psychology Today, April 2018, p. 46).

Caregivers are particularly at risk for loneliness. I interviewed several people who were part of a support group at the Friendship Centers in Sarasota. One man described his emotional isolation. His wife does not appreciate what he does and is angry with him. Another caregiver expressed social isolation resulting from the loss of friends. “We’ve all experienced it; people with whom you shared things aren’t there anymore. You wonder if they’re afraid. Is it because they’re embarrassed, uncomfortable or don’t know how to handle your discomfort?” Alex complains, “My former friends don’t ask to have coffee anymore.”

Other at-risk groups include returning veterans, new widows and widowers, newly retired and newcomers to a community. Those who are married or are part of a group can also feel marginal and unhappy. If a marriage is unsatisfactory, but before one declares it is time to end it, one can feel very isolated. 

We can all point to our own experiences or that of others and identify loneliness. But the more important question is what, if anything, can you do about it?

Strategies for Overcoming Loneliness

Study the topic.One woman said the first thing she did when her divorce was in process and she began feeling acute loneliness was to read everything she could on the subject. 

Focus on Emotional Isolation. When you have lost your most intimate connection. Take time to grieve. Join a grief group. Talk about it with a therapist. Over time start looking for a new attachment figure.

Focus on Social Isolation–Identify an organization and offer to volunteer. Become engaged. One woman, recently widowed but lonely for several years as she took care of a spouse with Parkinson’s, joined a temple. The Rabbi and members of the Congregation welcomed her. She has become very active and is totally absorbed with contributing and benefiting from being part of this community. 

Start Networking—An Overall Strategy. Malcolm Gladwell underscores the importance of connecting through “strong ties” where you would find jobs (or dates) through personal connections and through “weak ties” with people you barely know. Both are critical, but if you are only using “strong ties” you probably already know the same people. It is through “weak ties” that you meet people and groups you did not previously know (see The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Difference, pp. 54,55). Talk to people telling them what you are looking for, use the internet to meet people, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to develop new connections.
Don’t Forget the Internet—The internet is not a substitute for face to face relationships, but it is a way to stay connected with family and friends. It can, of course, become addictive but it also can help people become connected.

In Conclusion: The overall message—keep your dance card full, stay engaged, make new friends but keep the old. And, remember– we all need a confident as well as a social network. 

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