Loneliness is a sign of our times. “Perceived Social Isolation” is the sociologist’s term for loneliness. These days there is an upsurge of loneliness among people of all ages and it is not good for society and it is not good for your health. Many who suffer loneliness are in fact socially isolated, living alone without regular significant contact with friends or family. Some who suffer from loneliness do have people in their lives, and are not in fact socially isolated but they are unable to take advantage of the potential relationships with those who they are in contact with on a daily basis, and thus are lonely.

lonely personIs there a connection between disability and loneliness?

Yes, many disabled people suffer from loneliness. One person who has chronicled the issue of loneliness among the disabled is Professor Al Condeluci at the University of Pittsburg. Since the publication of his book, Social Capital in 2014, Condeluci has offered tools and solutions for the problem of social isolation among the disabled, and these same tools provide a path for moving forward against loneliness among  the disabled and among everyone else. Condeluci had learned that providing needed services to disabled people did not go far enough because the institutional nature of the services (medical services, social services)  left the disabled person still alone, and lonely. In response, for the past 20 years he has developed an approach to the provision of services to the disabled that emphasizes the development of relationships, what he calls “interdependence” that can result in the building up of the social capital of the disabled person.

Loneliness is Rising, Not Just For the Disabled

We are experiencing an outbreak of loneliness among all sectors of society, not just the disabled. What explains that? How did we get to a situation where the number of lonely people is increasing? What is driving up the number of people who suffer from loneliness?

Aside from the disabled, the growth in the number of people who suffer from loneliness can be seen as a consequence of the sea change in cultural mores occurring in western industrialized societies over the past 50 years. The sexual revolution, the breakdown of the family, the trend to smaller family size, increased incidence of divorce, sons and daughters moving away from family for education and or work. Migration. In addition, loneliness often follows a diagnosis of dementia, or even it can simply come along with all the other circumstances of old age. At the other end of the age spectrum, many parents with young children suffer from consistent loneliness. And in middle age, many of those who have responsibility to care for a disabled or elderly person often suffer from loneliness.

Many of the aspects of modern society and cultural change do in fact have important unfortunate cultural and societal consequences. One of those consequences is an increase in the number of people who are living by themselves, without spouse or children and with very little consistent social interaction. If you are living alone and have no one to interact with on a regular basis – this is social isolation, loneliness.

Physical Consequences of Chronic Loneliness

It is said that the damage to your health from chronic social isolation, loneliness, is about the same as if you smoked 15 cigarettes a day. Wow!

In the United Kingdom, the Jo Cox Commission has taken up the problem of loneliness, and the terrible consequences it forebodes for England’s aging citizens, and for that society.  The Jo Cox Report, issued by the Commission in December 2017, set forth the dimensions of the problem of loneliness in the UK. According to the report, as cultural changes have weakened the role of the labor union, the church, even the role of work, society has become more and more disconnected. 

In the US, the Saguardo Seminar at Harvard University tracks civic engagement and social capital in America. From the Saguardo web site: Joining a group (or better, two!) can have the same effect on your life expectancy as quitting smoking. 

Loneliness and Social Media

The rise of the smart phone, and of social media use, Facebook Instagram, Snapchat has also resulted in increased social isolation, and loneliness.

Among millennials, and among teens, on account of social media use, there is extensive loneliness. It turns out that the social contact through screens, think of it as fake social contact, can actually increase loneliness. Some researchers think the sharp increase in depression among high school age children in the US is attributable to social media use on smart phones.  

How To Beat Loneliness

students in classroomFrom these several points we can see that loneliness in 2018 is a problem that can affect people at all ages, and in many different circumstances. The answer to loneliness is relationships and getting and being in contact with people, social contact. How can you build up your own social capital to offset the loneliness you or others may have?

Some suggestions from Annie Flury at the BBC: 

  1. 1. Learn something, join a class, or study it on you tube videos.
  2. 2. Go for a walk.
  3. 3. Get a pet
  4. 4. Join a group

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John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer
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