Did you know that almost half of all Americans say they often feel alone or left out? The medical community has declared loneliness to be a leading cause of health issues and the feeling of being disconnected or isolated, is at epidemic proportions.
I’ve recently discovered first-hand how loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.
I’ve been working with a local organization that does outreach to the elderly and housebound and I want to share the story of a man I recently met — for the purposes of anonymity, I’ll call him “Bill.” Bill is now typical of a growing number of people in this country. Bill is in his early 80’s and he lives alone in a small town. Bill has no family left to speak of and his friends have either moved away, or have passed on. Bill’s house is somewhat remote in nature and while he does have a few neighbors who live close by, he rarely sees them, if at all.
Chatting with “Bill” on a recent visit, he felt comfortable enough to open up to me and he told me that he has begun going through all the boxes he has stored in his house. “I was going through the old family pictures and I picked up one of me sitting on my mother’s lap when I was a small boy,” he said, as he started to tear up. “I have no one to give them to…no one who would want them. I realized that I have a house full of memories and once I’m gone, who’ll care about them? Who’ll remember me? Who’ll care that I was even on this earth?”
What Bill is feeling is becoming all too common. Its not his fault he has no family left. Its not his fault he’s getting older and not able to get out much. Bill is like countless elderly Americans — alone, isolated, sad and worse, he’s unmistakably lonely. What Bill told me next really made my heart ache, saying “Until you called me and came to see me this week, I haven’t heard from or seen a single human being in almost two weeks.” In fact, in the course of our chat, I learned that he spends holiday’s alone and that no one has wished him a happy birthday in years.
How can this be? How can a once vibrant man be cast aside this way? Do none of this neighbors think to call him or stop in and see him? Two weeks without human contact may not seem like a long time to those of us who are still active, but to someone already feeling alone, it must be unbearable.
Bill sits in his house alone most of the time and his only constant companion his own mind — his memories of how his life used to be. He looks at all of his possessions – his house, furniture, family heirlooms and he sadly realizes, he has no one to leave them to…no one to keep those memories alive.
For me, this is so sad that I cry when I think about it. I’m happy to say that we’re now calling and visiting Bill regularly and it does give him comfort, but the truth is, its not the same as having close friends or family come and see him.
Here are some stats on this growing problem:
New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America
The survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older revealed some alarming findings:
- Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%) or left out (47%).
- One in four Americans (27%) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
- Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43%) and that they are isolated from others (43%).
- One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20%) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18%).
- Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
- Only around half of Americans (53%) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
- Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
- Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).
Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has shined the spotlight on the rising number of lonely people in America and firmly believes it is a growing threat to our well-being.
“I have met have thousands of friends on Facebook but find few people who really know them. As a society, we have built stronger Wi-Fi connections over time, but our personal connections have deteriorated.” – Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
Read more: Former Surgeon General Murthy declares Loneliness to be an epidemic.
These statistics and facts are very alarming and they cannot be ignored.
Loneliness is awful and we need to do a much better job in this country of addressing it. Anyone can be lonely, regardless of age, but it really does hit the elderly hardest.
“…People hunger to be known authentically and far too many people feel invisible right now, and that is that the crux of our loneliness epidemic right now,” he said.
“The fundamental thing is this: We have for years thought about ourselves as an individualistic society that champions individual achievement but what the data around loneliness tells us more and more is we’re truly interdependent creatures and ultimately we need each other.” – Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
What to do if you know someone who is lonely
One reason people sometimes avoid helping a lonely person is because they fear that person will become a drain on their already limited time. The truth is though, lonely people don’t expect you to be there for them 24 x 7 — they just need to know that someone cares…that someone is thinking about them.
Here are just a few ideas for throwing a lifeline to a lonely person:
- Invite them out for coffee or to a party you’re having.
- If you’re running errands, ask them if they want to come with you — this can provide a great opportunity to get to know each other as you both shop for groceries, etc. Its also an ideal way to get them out of their house for a while, so they’re interacting with daily life in public.
- Ask them over to a family dinner. One great way to make this really special is to make it a regular thing, such as every other week. This will really give that lonely friend something to look forward to and will make them feel included and wanted.
- Help them make a connection with your other friends, local charities, the garden club, etc. If there are events/groups/hobby circles they can join, they’ll start to meet other people and this will help them to feel integrated into the community.
- If you or a friend has a regular book reading club or “game night,” invite them to join.
- Visit. You’re probably busy and that’s understandable, but visiting a lonely person even just once a week for 30 minutes, may be the only human contact they have.
- Call them. This is so simple, yet as we know, people forget to just pick up the phone. Check in on them regularly and be prepared to share some real time talking to them — if one makes them feel rushed or as if calling them is a chore, they’ll sense it and that will make them feel sad.
Often, lonely people don’t want to admit they’re lonely because our society makes it something to be ashamed of…it’s not. Most of the time a number of circumstances have caused loneliness, and these can happen to anyone, so if you’re fortunate to have friendships and relationships with family members, extend that blessing to people who need it most.
For me, spending time with “Bill” and others in the same circumstance, has really been an epiphany. No one should be alone and no one, especially the elderly, should spend their remaining years feeling sad, lonely and isolated.
“Lonely is not being alone, it’s the feeling that no one cares.” – Anonymous
Reach out to the lonely and let them know that “yes, there are people who care — you’re not alone in this word.” Let them know you’re thinking about them and care about them. Be the lifeline that lonely people so desperately need.