By Rhonda Collins, I Start Wondering Columnist
As women move into our 60s, 70s, and beyond, many of us spend more time alone. As our world shrinks, we might suddenly, and surprisingly, have bouts of loneliness.
This is what happened to me. And, I’m not alone:
41% of U.S. seniors (aged 66 and older) report feeling lonely, according to a December 2021 study commissioned by Cigna Healthcare. These percentages are similar to pre-pandemic numbers.
Loneliness is reported around the world and across all age groups with young adults and seniors reporting the highest rates, according to an analysis of 75 studies on loneliness.
Why All the Loneliness?
Retirement can bring less stress, but also a feeling of isolation and an absence of routine. Grown kids leaving home and grandkids becoming teenagers can open up new options for our schedules, but also can lead to a sudden lack of purpose.
As we age, we are more likely to experience the deaths of loved ones, resulting in a sense of loss and disorientation. And, a personal or partner’s illness or disability can leave us feeling overwhelmed and longing for our old way of life.
I personally have experienced several of these transitions in the past five years. In addition, I have recently felt disconnected from many things I hold dear – family and friends– since my husband’s job required us sometimes to be away from home.
As a result, I have spent much time alone – and, at times, I’ve also been lonely.
Impacts of Loneliness
According to the National Institute on Aging, a research project spanning two decades reveals that social isolation and loneliness can impact both physical and mental health. An article summarizing the research says that loneliness is linked to higher risks for “high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
One of the NIA-funded researchers, Steve Cole, Ph.D., explains that chronic loneliness can trigger our biological defense mechanisms, which accelerate certain processes in our bodies such as plaque buildup, cancer cell growth or inflammation. In other words, Cole says, “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases.”
When I first retired and started spending more time by myself, I actually enjoyed the quiet. I’m enough of an introvert that the lack of conversation opened a space for reflection and goal setting. Initially, it was both peaceful and energizing. But, after a few months of being away from my familiar routine and long stretches of not seeing family and friends, I started feeling disoriented and lacking in motivation, with no sense of purpose. I had let myself become disconnected from the world and loneliness crept in.
My new year’s resolution for 2023 was to have more authentic encounters on a daily basis. By making an intentional effort to connect with both loved ones and strangers, I wanted to receive and give encouragement. This, in turn, would hopefully provide me a greater sense of connection and meaning.
I’m only a couple of months into my new intention, but already I feel the impact. I have a more positive outlook and a renewed sense of direction and purpose. The side effect: I don’t feel as lonely as I did a few months ago.
To counter the loneliness – along with related health issues – I have several suggestions from my own experiences and recommendations of health experts and researchers. Living by yourself or no longer working outside your home doesn’t mean you have to be isolated from others. Here are a few do’s and don’ts.
Do . . .
When you want to feel more connected:
Reach out. Make a list of family and friends who energize you. Add to the list any others who also might be lonely. Have a personal interaction--whether in-person, virtual, text or email – with one person each day in order to connect.
If you have social anxiety or are not used to initiating conversations, write down what you want to say or questions to ask in advance of the meeting. Prepping yourself for a great conversation is worth the extra effort.
Get out. Getting out of the house helps stimulate your brain by seeing new things as well as providing opportunities for connecting with others.
My friend Nancy, who is mostly homebound caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s, says, “You have to find new places to connect.” One of her favorite places is the local senior center, where her husband is encouraged to join her. She also enjoys her church community, attending in-person once a month and participating in weekly church study and discussion groups through Zoom.
Find your community and join them at least twice a week. Use Meetup or other platforms to connect to others with similar interests. You can meet new people while learning a new hobby – both opportunities to engage your brain and keep loneliness at bay. Not finding an existing club of interest? Start one yourself! Host a book club for your neighbors or invite retiree friends to a monthly luncheon.
Travel. If meeting up with others is energizing, imagine what a trip out of town will do for your soul! Plan an excursion to visit family, friends or sites you have never seen – even if you have no one to travel with you. The Travel Channel says solo travel has skyrocketed in recent years with some tour groups eliminating fees for single bookings.
Visiting older family members and hearing their family stories is especially important. My brother and I have a too-long-delayed trip soon to visit our 97-year-old cousin Violet and her “baby sister,” Marie, age 92. Violet called to tell me she was “thrilled” about our visit. This made all the plans and expenses worthwhile.
Volunteer. So many organizations are in need of help. Bonus: according to AARP, after just one year of service, volunteers experience less anxiety, depression and loneliness! You can identify groups that can use your talents through the Volunteer Match website, AARP’s Create the Good portal, or the VOMO app.
Don’t be a Stranger. If you are unable to engage with family and friends, you can still have an authentic connection – even with strangers – simply by taking time to ask a couple of sincere questions. Who knows? The small talk might even lead to a new friendship.
When you have lots of time alone:
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, connecting in-person can be problematic. If so, you can ward off the loneliness by staying physically and mentally active.
Engage the brain. Each day, complete a puzzle or game that challenges you. You can buy inexpensive books with crossword puzzles, word games, Sudoku, or logic games – or find them online.
Reflect. Grab a tablet – paper or electronic – and write a few words each day. Reflect on your purpose, focus on your values, make a list of goals, or describe your feelings about aging. One of the easiest written reflections is a gratitude journal – simply record one thing you are thankful for each day. These journals have been linked to improved mental health, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.
Get outside. We’ve seen studies reporting that sunshine and nature improve one’s mood. New research reveals an additional link between sunshine and positive effects on cognitive functions. If you can’t easily go outside, bring nature to you by hanging a bird feeder outside your window or adding some houseplants inside.
Get some exercise. Physical activity encourages your body to release chemicals that improve your mood and outlook. Regular exercise can improve symptoms of various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, as well as improving memory and other cognitive functions, according to health experts.
Don’t . . .
Avoid these behaviors that diminish rather than expand your world.
Don’t live in an echo chamber. Leaving the TV or radio on a single channel of endless news or opinion, particularly if it reinforces only one point of view, can lead to negative or distorted thinking.
Don’t limit your circle of friends. By restricting your community to just a few people, you risk not having a wide range of people to call on when you need support. Heavy reliance on just a few friends or immediate family for conversation or other needs, may result in them seeing you as clingy or demanding.
Don’t socialize with toxic people. You know them: narcissists, gossips, energy vampires, constant critics, and people who take advantage of your good nature. If your circle of friends includes people who make you feel bad every time you talk, it’s time to stop engaging with them and find some new friends.
Don’t self-medicate. A glass of wine at the end of the day can help us relax, but alcohol or drugs should never be used to dull the pain of loneliness. When this is our way of dealing with our sadness, it’s time to see a therapist.
Toward a New Frame of Mind
These are just a few ways that we can create a more fulfilling, less disconsolate lifestyle as we age. It will require some effort to stop being lonely – perhaps including professional counseling – but a happier, healthier future is worth it. Remember, it’s okay to spend time alone, but you don’t have to be lonely.