There is a great deal of talk about the loneliness epidemic. Since the pandemic more people have experienced loneliness. So, what is it? Loneliness is characterized by the depressing feeling of being lonesome and alone. For some people this feeling is combined with the reality that they do not have a companion that really knows them or that they know well. A person can be surrounded by people, but feel invisible and alone. Worse yet, they may not know anyone well enough to call if they need help. This awareness can lead to a sense of isolation even when surrounded by people. And an epidemic means many people are experiencing loneliness–in fact most! 60% of the population in the US is painfully lonely.
On an individual level there are 4 identified types of loneliness that can help us figure out what drives individual loneliness and then see what can be done to help a person move toward engaging with others in meaningful ways.
Emotional loneliness is one type and it may have deep drivers that keep a person from making friends–such as deep seated trust issues that get in the way of taking steps to know people well. Therapy can be helpful for a person struggling with emotional loneliness.
Another type is social loneliness which may result from low self-esteem or anxiety. Depression can be a driver of low self-esteem and anxiety, so again counseling may help a person figure out the origins of their low self esteem or social anxiety and begin to look at interventions for overcoming. It is possible a person has received criticism that leaves them feeling that they are not interesting or fun to be around or that they simply do not measure up in some way. In this case they may not reach out to others because they are protecting themselves from expected rejection. The fix may be as simple as getting out of their “comfort zone” to do something like joining a group where they can be helpful or engage in a shared interest.
A Third type of loneliness is referred to as situational loneliness. This generally results from an event or life change such as; moving to a new place, losing a loved one to death or divorce or from the sudden isolation brought on by personal sickness. Situational loneliness can also be brought on when a person becomes a caregiver. Retirement is another cause of this type of loneliness–especially if people do not have a plan for their free time. Many people experienced situational loneliness as a result of pandemic. Situational loneliness generally runs its course–but without intervention it can become chronic.
Chronic loneliness is the fourth type of loneliness and it occurs when any cause of loneliness becomes a way of life. The person accepts loneliness as their lot in life. This is sad and negatively affects their mental and physical health. Click here to read more about the different types of loneliness or here to learn about effects of loneliness on mental and physical health.
From the article on the effects of loneliness:
“To tackle the problem of loneliness, we require more than just individual approaches,” said Melody Ding, PhD, an epidemiologist and population behavioral scientist at the University of Sydney. “Elevating loneliness as a public health issue requires us to rethink the way we build our society, such as how we live, move, work and socialize.”
In taking a look at society it is important to look at who is most affected by loneliness and what we can do to bridge meaningful interactions. This is central to our work at Hope & A Future. People often think of loneliness as an older person’s problem. However, it turns out that the loneliness epidemic affects all age groups. And, in fact, young people are suffering at higher rates than older people! Even before the pandemic, researchers began reporting a loneliness epidemic in young adults. Here are some staggering statistics:
“Loneliness Statistics 2022: Demographics USA & Worldwide”
Loneliness in Generation Z (Born 1997–2012)
Gen Z is the loneliest age group. (US, Cigna, 2018)
65% sometimes or always feel lonely. (US, YouGov, 2019)
69% feel shy. (US, Cigna, 2019)
19% have no close friends. (US, YouGov, 2019)
87% say it’s difficult to make new friends because they are shy. (US, YouGov, 2019)
Loneliness Among Millennials (Born 1982–1999)
65% sometimes or always feel lonely. (US, YouGov, 2019)
27% have no close friends. (US, YouGov, 2019)
60% say it’s difficult to make new friends because they are shy. (US, YouGov, 2019)
42% of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis. (US, State of Women’s Wellness, 2017)
Loneliness in Generation X (Born 1961–1981)
50% sometimes or always feel lonely. (US, YouGov, 2019)
33% have no close friends. (US, YouGov, 2019)
Loneliness Among the Elderly
44% of Baby Boomers sometimes or always feel lonely. (US, YouGov, 2019)
16% of Baby Boomers have no close friends. (US, YouGov, 2019)
Again, young adults were suffering from loneliness pre-pandemic. While the pandemic magnified the loneliness problem for people normally out and about in the community–statistics for seniors in institutions stayed fairly constant before, during and after the pandemic. The lack of meaningful engagement among most people living in institutions has been a constant problem for decades. So, seniors living in long term care felt just as lonely pre pandemic as they felt during the pandemic. Loneliness is part of long term care institutional living. In fact, loneliness may explain why most people’s mental and physical functioning decline at an accelerated rate once they are placed in long term care settings with a constantly revolving staff of caregivers. No one knows them, they may not know who to call for help and they may feel more like a number than a unique person.
Yet, loneliness is not just an adult problem. It is described and known by grade school children of all backgrounds. Children who receive free lunch at school and children with disabilities report the highest rates of loneliness. Click here to read more on this.
However, children from all backgrounds are suffering. Even children with two wage earning parents end up returning to empty homes too often. And tired parents often do not have the energy to engage well with their children at the end of the day. Children and their parents need support. At Hope and a future we are looking at an intergenerational intervention. Seniors with time, interest and energy can step in to encourage and engage with all ages of children and their parents.
By stepping back and taking a quick look at societal shifts we can begin to see interventions that may help cure the loneliness epidemic. Without delving too deeply, I will simply list a few changes I have seen in my lifetime that seem to be societal drivers for loneliness:
- We are a very mobile society, fewer people stay in the same community or live near their extended family. So long term support systems are less common.
- The concept of family, considered the building block of society, has become fluid. Fewer people marry and of those that do, less than half of marriages last a lifetime.
- For one and two parent households, parents are working. So there is less time and energy for family and neighborhood engagement.
- Keeping generations divided into age related schools and programs limits opportunity for intergenerational engagement.
- Discomfort with diversity hinders inclusion. And we have a diverse society.
- Poverty and chronic illness isolate people.
- Cell Phones have changed social behavior and people are more shy when meeting new people.
The list could go on and on. Fortunately there is a lot we can do! One area of exploration for bringing diverse people together is in the area of creating contact zones. At Hope & A Future we are working to create safe venues for bringing the generations together. We have an aging society and one thing older people often have is time. Mobilizing seniors as mentors and volunteers could be of great help. Today’s seniors grew up in a time when helping neighbors was considered part of life. It was also a pre cell phone era. Social skills involved warm welcomes and eye contact. Conversations involved asking people questions and listening to their answers. At Hope & A Future we know that mobilizing neighbors can be as simple as knocking on a door to introduce yourself or signing up to volunteer to help someone enjoy the afternoon. Yet it can also be as advanced as the explorations of the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness.
At Hope & A Future we are working to build an intergenerational neighborhood that will have intentional contact zones designed to bring the generations together in fun and meaningful ways. We are building on the synergy between the needs and strengths of young and old. At its inception the goal for our Therapeutic Interactive Intergenerational Neighborhood (TIIN) model has included a structure that helps neighbors of all ages and backgrounds get to know each other through both intentional programming and the spontaneous work and fun of life. We know that people are at their best when they have purpose. Purpose means you belong. We have developed a Family Of Friends model that engages staff, residents, family, friends and volunteers in helpful and fun traditions and events. Many of these are developed by and for the people that are part of the neighborhood. Our current setting and planned expansion provides intergenerational contact zones that provide a safe venue for organized and spontaneous gatherings. Our model combats loneliness by building the sense of “we are in this together”.
People that chose to live in our planned expansion will agree to weekly use of a neighborhood time bank. Here they can sign up to help with the work of the neighborhood and they can request help. As people find roles, they will also develop friendships. This community will also make space for listening to and sharing stories. Staff will work side by side with neighbors to facilitate a structure for fun, helpful and meaningful activities, events and programs. We hope our model will empower people to build equity for each other. In this intentional neighborhood, all community members are included. It is our goal that no one feels invisible. We aim to empower seniors with the role that once belonged to them–the role of being encouragers and mentors to children and young adults. I have long believed that if we continue to see the baby boomers as a problem, we will miss the resource that they are.
This week I watched Leon, our resident 2 year old, welcoming guests at Hope & A Future. When a well loved volunteer arrived, he looked at her with eye contact and said, “Nice to see you Shell!” (Michelle) when she arrived. She quickly replied, “Nice to see you Leon!” Later that day he ran to answer the doorbell and found someone he did not know. He looked at a trusted smiling adult that he was familiar with and then extended his hand and said, “Glad to meet me!” I’m sure they were! He is only 2, and although his sentence sounded confused, I think it was also fact! In his short life, Leon has grown up around social seniors and it is serving him well. They love him and he loves them. And that means there is no room for low self esteem or loneliness for Leon. He will likely feel glad to meet you and feel sure you are glad to meet him anywhere he goes!
This week I encourage you to give someone in your life a warm welcome! I hope something wonderful happens!
My best to you,