We are social beings and require relationships with others in order to live healthy, satisfying lives. As we age, opportunities for interaction change. Loneliness can become a problem. Its presence, however, calls our attention to unmet needs that may be leading us toward dangerous isolation. Scholars are developing nuanced methods to measure loneliness. Ideally, a well-defined problem leads to more effective solutions for it.
Step I) What Do We Know About Loneliness?
Current research reveals a few key consensus insights:
- Loneliness becomes a problem that warrants attention when it persists and feeds on itself
- Loneliness is different from depression, though it can co-exist with it
- Loneliness normally waxes and wanes over time and responds to situational changes
- Loneliness is not determined by amount of time spent with others
- Loneliness impairs the use of social skills for connecting with others
Step II) How Can Loneliness Be Assessed?
Though most of us do not need a checklist to determine if we feel badly enough to desire change, surveys can help us focus on specific issues that contribute to an overall malaise. Social psychologists use the Loneliness Scale developed at UCLA to assess the depth and frequency of the loneliness experienced. Raters identify whether a statement is true for them “Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes” or “Often.” There are 20 items on the questionnaire and points are assigned each response from zero (Never) to three (Often). Clinicians interpret such self-reports in a larger therapeutic context, but scores above 40 usually indicate a problem should be addressed.
Here are a few representative items from the UCLA Loneliness Scale:
* I am no longer close to anyone
* I feel left out
* I am unable to reach out and communicate with those around me
* My social relationships are superficial
* I feel starved for company
* No one really knows me well
* I am unhappy being so withdrawn
* People are around me but not with me
Then the test taker ranks the items according to personal significance. This allows the therapist to create a detailed treatment with specific goals to address the loneliness.
For example let us consider a hypothetical neighbor, “Denisha.” Say Denisha is 72, healthy, mobile, generally genial but ranks “I feel starved for company” above all the other statements. Denisha might explore numerous activity options to gain satisfaction. Companionship could include brief encounters with other neighbors while sitting on her front porch, participating in an arts and crafts class at the local community or senior center, volunteering at a museum, or setting a goal of meeting one neighbor per week and then doing it. Finding ways to come into contact with others is less difficult than finding others with whom to engage in intimate ways.
Had Denisha identified her primary concern as “my social relationships are superficial,” then different types of encounters would likely be more satisfying. Denisha might use the online-tool MeetUp.org to join a group of like-minded hobbyists. She could meet with her new group regularly and develop friendships while engaging in mutually satisfying tasks. MeetUp groups exist nationwide and are organized around activities such as gardening, book or movie discussions, political action, walking, learning a new language or musical instrument, travelling, cooking — any of thousands of activities in the MeetUp.org world.
If Denisha’s number one priority issue is “I am unhappy being so withdrawn,” she may be so isolated that simply calling an old friend by phone, or asking her neighbor to visit might take more energy than she can summon. In these situations, Denisha needs assistance from others. Caregivers, family members, and senior care providers can all help reinvigorate Denisha so she can apply the social skills she has used throughout her life.
Step III) What Recreational Activities Can Satisfy Needs for More Social Connection?
The social connection concerns that the Loneliness Scale and similar research identifies can be addressed in tandem with determining what type of recreation is most enjoyable. Engaging in recreation brings us into contact with others. We can also use it to invite others to join us.
According to Durham, NC’s Structure House wellness center, balanced recreation includes activities that span six areas:
1) Social Interactions – e.g. regular coffee, cards or cocktail dates, phone conversations with friends or family, active correspondence
2) Creative Expressions – e.g. photography, gardening, painting, event planning, scrapbooking, playing music
3) Physical Exercise – e.g. walking, gym partner, personal trainer workouts, dance class, swimming, yoga, Pilates
4) Spectator Appreciation – e.g. movies, TV, attending cultural or sports events, museum visiting, sightseeing tours
5) Intellectual Stimulation – e.g. attend lectures or classes, book groups, listen to podcasts or electronic courses, take political action
6) Solitary Relaxation – e.g. read, meditate, attend religious retreats, listen to music, baths, sit outdoors
Step IV) How are Obstacles Overcome to Increase and Improve Social Connections?
The challenge is how to integrate what we know about loneliness and how it impairs using the social skills we have successfully employed throughout our lives, with engaging in pleasurable, meaningful activities with other people. Feelings of loneliness often paralyze us. We may want to reach out to others, but our discomfort stops us. In such cases we need help. Whether we ask a family member, friend, neighbor, clergy member, teacher, therapist, acquaintance, caregiver, health provider, or someone on the other end of a call-in-help center, we must express our need if we hope to satisfy it. Alternatively, merely putting ourselves in the path of somebody caring can help them take notice and inspire them to think of ways to help you connect with others. Become open to hearing what others have to offer. No outreach to assuage loneliness is too little to attempt. Although loneliness can severely impair your social skills, those skills have not gone away. They are just rusty. Exploring opportunities and welcoming unexpected people into your life can lessen the loneliness.
Written by Kate S. Sharpe, MSW, PhD with Senior Directory, LLC