Social isolation and loneliness are being studied by numerous healthcare, religious and higher-education institutions. Doctors, social workers, psychologists and religious leaders all want to understand and help reduce its effects.
The loneliness epidemic: 8 triggers and risk factors
The conclusion of almost every researcher is that social isolation and loneliness can lead to serious health problems. Namely, increased risk of suicide, high levels of stress, elevated blood pressure and depression.
But first it is helpful to understand what loneliness is and what causes it.
“Loneliness is the sadness that comes from missing companionship, being disconnected from your familiarity or the feeling of lacking purpose,” says Dr. Judy Ryan, former President/CEO of the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society.
Unfortunately, the triggers of loneliness share traits with typical conditions seniors face as they transition from the work world to retirement and beyond.
That’s how the dangers of this epidemic can fly under the radar, and why it is important to understand the causes of loneliness.
Here are eight risk factors that can lead to loneliness:
Everyone needs someone. Without some human interaction, it is impossible to feel connected. Living alone happens for a variety of reasons and can be managed to some extent. But the problem is compounded when adults are isolated geographically, children live far away or siblings and friends die.
Having no transportation or not being able to drive can easily lead to isolation. The double-edged sword is that lack of transportation can also affect an individual’s health treatment plan. Without a ride to the doctor’s office or to pick up prescriptions, seniors may suffer.
Retiring from work, or being unable to volunteer because of a disability, can leave a huge hole in a social network. Moving into a new community can be isolating as well. It's not always easy to make connections.
With money comes the ability to live more comfortably, to be more mobile or to hire a caregiver. The lack of income can be a barrier to obtaining these things.
Individuals who live in rural areas may be separated by great distances from companions. They also may have family members who have moved away and are no longer close enough to visit on a regular basis, leaving them vulnerable.
As people grow older, the number of close friends they have often shrinks. In the case of rural areas, their church and community may be shrinking, too.
Losing a spouse can quickly spiral into loneliness, especially for those who lack a support system of family and friends.
Remember that it's possible to lessen the effects of loneliness. But it takes a community and a willingness to connect in meaningful ways—willingness by the individual and willingness on the part of friends, family and community.