Are you lonely? Roughly half of people over the age of 60 are at risk of social isolation. But it’s also possible to feel lonely in a sea of people. Loneliness is an emotion as much as it is a state, and about a third of seniors report feeling lonely. You might feel lonely when you’re physically isolated, but feeling misunderstood can also trigger loneliness. So, too, can one-sided, alienating or frustrating relationships. Loneliness in seniors is rapidly becoming an epidemic with very real health consequences.
As you age, you may face new challenges in connecting to others. People may move away, and shared interests — children, a job — may no longer be relevant. You’ll have to find new ways to connect and discover new shared interests.
For many older adults, though, loneliness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Loneliness damages your brain over time, depleting your motivation to pursue new relationships and eroding your social skills. You may feel less willing to seek out new relationships and then use the lack of those relationships as evidence that you’ll be lonely forever. If resentment sets in, your attempts to reach out to others may be alienating.
It’s a vicious cycle, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Loneliness in seniors is reversible at any and every age. You can build a more joyful, connected life no matter who you are and even if you’ve historically struggled in your relationships with others.
How Loneliness Affects Your Health
Think healthy living requires endless exercise, a cocktail of supplements and a diet that never includes a single pastry? Think again. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed multiple generations over more than seven decades, the most important predictor of a healthy life is a socially connected life. Numerous other studies echo this conclusion. In fact, loneliness may be as bad for your health as smoking.
People are less engaged with community social organizations that once gave their lives shape and meaning. The COVID-19 pandemic further isolated people and disrupted many relationships. As a result, people are lonelier than ever, putting them at a higher risk of:
Loneliness makes life less enjoyable and more painful, which may sap your motivation to make other healthy choices. But you can break this cycle.
An Antidote to Loneliness
Good news. It is easy to start improving your connectedness right away. We benefit so much from all forms of social contact–not just deep, meaningful friendships, but also the more casual interactions of everyday life.
In one study, researchers instructed participants to chat with strangers on the train. If you’re groaning already, you’re not alone. The participants complained about the effort. Despite this initial resistance, their efforts paid off, and these fleeting connections improved their well-being. And that’s just one daily conversation! Imagine how widening your circle throughout the day could foster even greater well-being.
Consider committing to being more open to relationships for just 30 days. Some ways to get started include:
Talking to a barista or server you see semiregularly.
Inviting a neighbor over for coffee or just asking them how they’re doing when you see them checking their mail.
Making connection easier by scheduling a standing phone or coffee date with a loved one.
Joining an organization devoted to a cause you care about or a beloved hobby.
Volunteering to help others. Doing so can help you find a sense of purpose while making new friends.
Responding with warmth when others reach out to you.
Telling the people you love most how much they mean to you.
At the end of this period, reflect on which interactions gave you the most joy, and then commit to spending more energy on those connections.
Remember that social skills are skills and, like any other skill, they take time to build. You might feel rusty and awkward at first, but practice really does make perfect.
Stephanie Cacioppo, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who studies the transformative effects of love and connection on the brain, uses the acronym GRACE to remind people of simple interventions to combat loneliness and disconnection:
You probably know the importance of gratitude already because books and articles emphasizing its role in well-being are omnipresent. Are you tuning out this advice? Cultivating gratitude — especially for the kind things people do for us — strongly correlates with long- and short-term well-being. It can also help you build stronger connections by acknowledging the love people give to you.
True giving expects nothing in return. But if you give to someone over and over only to get nothing in return, it’s easy to feel resentful. Relationships need to be balanced and equitable, with each party supporting and giving to the other. Find ways to give back to those who have given to you, and watch those relationships deepen.
Giving to others, especially without expecting anything in return, gives life meaning. It can help you feel better about yourself. Giving can be its own reward, and doing it once may inspire you to do it again and again.
So much of life feels like it’s imposed on us. You cannot change everything, but you can control a lot: how you respond when you’re angry and whether you take action to become happier and healthier, for example. Exercising more choice can empower you to feel more agency while steadily improving your life.
Life is challenging. We might as well enjoy it as much as we can. You don’t have to wait until you’ve done everything on your to-do list to have fun. You don’t have to earn time with a friend. Find ways to build joy and pleasure into every day.
Living in Community
Want to assess the extent to which you feel loneliness and isolation? This research-based quiz can help. And remember, a high loneliness scale is a significant health risk factor.
Even if you’re shy, need a lot of time to yourself, or previous relationships have hurt you, one thing remains true: We are social creatures — each and every one of us. And for most of human history, we have lived in close-knit communities.
We are social beings, and yet the way we live makes many of us feel profoundly disconnected. The brief glimmer social media offers is just not enough for most people and also poses its own risks. People who turn to social media to combat loneliness may actually end up feeling worse.
Meaningful communities still exist, though. A Life Plan Community offers many of the elements humans crave: independence and connection, a shared sense of purpose, altruism and support. HumanGood Life Plan Communities can help you nurture meaningful relationships.
Want to learn more about bringing joyful, lasting relationships into your life? Read our comprehensive blog, “Relationships: The Key Ingredient in the Recipe for a Happy, Healthy Life.”