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Understanding Loneliness

How older adults can stave off the isolating effects of chronic loneliness

How can you confront or overcome loneliness?

I suggest four simple steps, which I've captured in the acronym EASE, to deal with chronic loneliness:

E is for Extend Yourself. The perception of being threatened causes the withdrawal and passivity associated with loneliness. To test other ways of behaving without that feeling of danger, you need a safe place to experiment. So start small: Volunteer at a shelter or a hospice, tutor children, or help out with a kids' sports team. You won't necessarily receive gratitude and praise for your good deeds — that's not what you're after — but you may feel the positive sensations that can reinforce your desire to change, while building your confidence.

A is for Action Plan. Some people view themselves as adrift on a genetic or environmental raft whose course they cannot control. The simple realization that we are not passive victims — that we can change our situation by changing our thoughts, expectations and behaviors toward others — can have a surprisingly empowering effect.

S is for Selection. The solution to loneliness is not the quantity of your relationships, but their quality. Because these human connections are of necessity mutual, they require equal levels of intimacy and intensity on both sides. So try to sense which prospective relationships are promising, and which would be climbing the wrong tree. For people who tend to be quiet, for example, it's a good idea to select someone who is comfortable with silent companionship. How you go about meeting people hinges on what kind of people you want to meet.

E is for Expect the Best. We have more control over our thoughts and behavior patterns than we think. With a little practice, any one of us can "warm up" what we present to the world. This warmth and goodwill on one person's part will likely elicit warmth and goodwill from others — that's the power of reciprocity.

How many resources — programs, websites, hotlines — are available out there for lonely people?

Not many, unfortunately. One helpful organization that I'm aware of is Little Brothers: Friends of the Elderly, which is dedicated to reducing the loneliness of older adults who are living in isolation.

This lack of programs suggests loneliness isn't being taken as seriously as it should be.

Let me put that in perspective. People used to think infants had to have only their physical needs cared for. But then we learned that human contact and affection are essential, too. There's a parallel in today's views toward older adults. Our society pays a great deal of attention to their financial and medical conditions, but little attention to their social environment — whether they feel socially isolated, or whether they have connections to people they trust and care about. Most people still regard loneliness as a personal deficit or a weakness. Because it is stigmatized, those who are afflicted by it tend to deny it, ignore it or attempt to "tough it out." Conversely, those who do not feel lonely regard it as the other person's problem.

As I said earlier, more and more evidence points to loneliness being a serious risk factor for poor health. For more traditional risk factors such as smoking and obesity, there are established methods supported by science to help people decrease their risk of disease. But what's the correct strategy for reducing a person's loneliness? Is it simply a matter of surrounding a lonely person with other people, giving them more opportunities to socialize? Do they need help developing social skills? Or does a lonely person need a sort of "cognitive tune-up" to break the cycle of negative thoughts and perceptions? I think we must take this question seriously — and search for the best possible answers — if we're to enjoy our later years.

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