Minister of Loneliness

This is the second in our monthly series from guest blogger Nancy Hemesath.  Nancy challenges negative stereotypes of aging, believing that post-career years are meant to be both fulfilling and meaningful.  In this installment she discusses how social isolation is more detrimental to our health than most people realize and provides some suggestions on how to remedy loneliness.

I recently heard a program on National Public Radio that thoroughly captured my attention.  The interview and guests described the health issues attached to the pain of loneliness. Recent studies on the negative health impact of social isolation, i.e. loneliness can hardly be overstated.  Feeling lonely is a comparable health risk to cigarette smoking and obesity.   The United Kingdom has gone so far as to create a Minister of Loneliness to address this epidemic.

This program helped me realize that caregiving is often focused on the practical needs of the elder.  There is shopping, meal preparation, transportation to the doctor, housekeeping and the list never ends.  Tasks need to be accomplished and caregivers can check them off the list.   However, these accomplishments may be secondary to a more important service that meets a critical need of the elder—that of social contact.

People who say they always or frequently feel lonely are at higher risk for heart disease, cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, and other health issues.  They are also at risk for premature mortality.  Because the dangers of loneliness affect so many people, it is described as an epidemic based on the sheer numbers who suffer this condition.  In a world where so many people live by themselves, the likelihood of loneliness increases particularly among elders.

Social connection is a protective antidote for this loneliness. Quality interaction with people who care diminishes the sense of isolation.  Face-to-face connections counterbalance the many hours that people are left alone.  Conversation nourishes the mind as food nourishes the body.  What may seem like small talk may lift loneliness and provide a sense of comfort.  Regular visits break up boredom and create joyful anticipation.

Caregivers have a unique opportunity to contribute to the whole well-being of the elders simply by engaging in conversation and showing interest in their well-being.  This benefit could well pay higher dividends than any task that is accomplished.

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