Loneliness is one of the key issues of our time – with millions, young and old, thought to be in the grips of a silent struggle.
It’s proven to be a significant health challenge – with its effects likened to smoking and obesity – so it’s important to find new ways to tackle the problem.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine believe the key to preventing loneliness could lie in acts of kindness. But while you might think that means volunteers stepping in to keep lonely people company, it could actually be beneficial the other way around.
Simply put, helping others could stop you feeling lonely.
Researchers spoke to older adults living in a senior housing community, where shared common areas, planned social outings and communal activities aim to reduce isolation.
The purpose of the study was to find out why many older adults living in these settings still experience strong feelings of loneliness. Jeste and researchers conducted interviews with 30 adults aged 67 to 92 years old, as part of an overall study evaluating 100 older adults. In the community, 85% of residents reported moderate to severe levels of loneliness.
Through the interviews, they discovered ways loneliness was prevented among the residents. “One participant spoke of a technique she had used for years, saying ‘if you’re feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else,’” said Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author.
Studies have linked volunteering to better health outcomes in those who do it. Showing compassion, it would seem, could counteract feelings of loneliness – and possibly protect against the negative health implications.
The interviews also revealed other protective factors against loneliness were acceptance of ageing and comfort with being alone, which the researchers referred to as wisdom.
Jeste said: “One resident told us, ‘I’ve accepted the ageing process. I’m not afraid of it. I used to climb mountains. I want to keep moving, even if I have to crawl. I have to be realistic about getting older, but I consider and accept life as a transition’.
“Another resident responded, ‘I may feel alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m lonely. I’m proud I can live by myself.’”
The researchers found people’s experience of living with loneliness is shaped by a number of personal and environmental factors. “Different people feel lonely for different reasons despite having opportunities and resources for socialisation,” said Jeste. “This is not a one-size-fits-all topic.”
Feelings of loneliness were frequently associated with a lack of purpose in life. “We heard powerful comments like, ‘It’s kind of grey and incarcerating,‘” said Jeste. “Others expressed a sense of ‘not being attached, not having very much meaning and not feeling very hopeful’ or ‘being lost and not having control.’”
Another commonly-shared theme among those who felt lonely was loss. “Some residents talked about the loss of spouses, siblings and friends as the cause of their loneliness,” said Alejandra Paredes, a research fellow at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Others mentioned how making new friends cannot replace deceased friends they grew up with.” Having inadequate social skills was also considered to be a primary risk factor for loneliness.
The researchers said loneliness is a “growing public health concern” and it’s important, therefore, to identify causes of loneliness from the perspectives of those who experience it, so it can be resolved.
“It is paramount we address the wellbeing of our seniors – they are friends, parents and grandparents of the younger generations,” said Jeste. “Our study is relevant to better understand loneliness within senior housing, and other settings too, so we can develop effective interventions.”