I was asked to evaluate 90-year-old George, a handsome, distinguished-looking gentleman with a full head of white hair. The hospital nurses thought he might be suicidal because he wondered aloud, "What's the point of going on?" You see, it had been three years since George's wife died and, after 62 years of marriage, he was struggling with the promise of another holiday season alone. By his own admission, George wasn't really suicidal. He was "lonesome."
Loneliness? Is that a reason to put an old man on suicide watch in an inpatient unit and consult a clinical psychologist? Check out the data: loneliness is not only emotionally painful; it's a threat to one's health. According to Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., a senior research scientist with the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, the stress caused by loneliness creates a host of medical issues, including arteriosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and tendonitis. That is, the state of loneliness has a negative impact on the immune system. Additionally, loneliness contributes to insomnia, severe depression and anxiety, reduced cardiovascular functioning, and even a progressive cognitive decline. And, according to recent research, having a lonely heart is a serious contributor to heart disease and premature death!
But before you call the hospital to reserve a bed on George's floor, first consider that if the perception of hopelessness is the single greatest contributor to depression, then the injection of hope is the best antidepressant available. There is hope; loneliness is treatable. To overcome feeling lonely it is best to first gain a handle on what it is. Lonely is not a function of being alone. As you well know, you can be alone and completely at peace. Likewise, you can be dreadfully adrift at a football game in a sea of 65,000 of your closest friends. Worse, you can be lonely in a marriage void of meaningful connection and/or intimacy. Of course, there may be no greater loneliness than a neglected widow/er left to live out the remaining years alone. You see, being lonely is really about feeling useless, unnecessary, unimportant or put out to pasture. Loneliness is a state of untethered existence.
But the remedy for loneliness is exactly what you think it is -- human connection. Lonely is no more pathologic than hungry; it is the result of not being adequately fed socially. Naturally, social needs are best satisfied through meaningful friendship. Researchers are only beginning to understand the extraordinary value of friendship, a concept that the philosopher Aristotle spoke about thousands of years earlier: “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief, they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”
While no one can replace George's wife, he would do well to know the results of the following study of elderly men: half of the men were made to join a social group, the other half not. Two years later the group of men who were connected to the social club were significantly more likely to still be alive than the other group. (Borzak, 2009)
By George, that's not all. People with friends live longer, catch fewer colds (despite being exposed to more germs) and even digest food easier than people who eat alone. They are less depressed, less anxious and, yes, tend to live longer than the lonely. (Vilbert, 2013) (Valeo, Web MD, 2007) (Sheahan, 2008) Great news but where do you begin when you're 90? How about the Senior Friendship Center, the YMCA, your local house of worship, service clubs like Rotary, Sertoma or Kiwanis, singles groups, travel groups, retirement homes, libraries, public lectures, and golf leagues - to name 10. And, just in case George is courageous/crazy enough to take one more great risk in life, he may want to try his hand once again at love. Nothing cures loneliness quite like a wonderful partner. Besides, he was certainly successful the first time around.
Hey ladies: anyone need a handsome, single gentleman to take to a Christmas party?