What do we mean by chronic loneliness?
Chronic loneliness can arise when people are both socially isolated and experience a gap between their social lives and expectations. They often lack either genuine social support or the resources (emotional, mental, financial) to meet their social needs. While older people are vulnerable, especially following the death of loved ones, chronic loneliness can happen to people of all ages. Chronically lonely adolescents, for example, may want to be more socially integrated, but their thoughts and feelings may get in the way of acting on opportunities to be socially included. Immigrants, people with disabilities, and people who identify as LBGT are particularly vulnerable because of their stigmatized status, which can be compounded by cultural and language barriers.
Chronic loneliness can show up in baffling ways. Some people may call you to simply chat about unrelated matters or they may withdraw from efforts to engage them. Even being around others – family, friends, large groups – may not reduce their loneliness. Meaningful interactions are a two-way street, but may feel like too much work for too little in return.
More than 60% of lonely people are married. They may feel disconnected from one another because they no longer seem to share their deeper thoughts, feelings, and experiences. If they feel less supported, they may begin to devalue their relationship – not only with their spouse, but with others, as well. This can make it more difficult to enjoy connections they want and need.
How can chronic loneliness affect health equity?
Most research on chronic loneliness focuses on older populations. Chronic loneliness can increase stress, raise blood pressure and weaken the immune system. It increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, hospitalization and premature death. Mental health risks are also high, including anxiety, depression and suicide. Chronic loneliness may reduce mobility and basic functioning. It can also cause people to delay seeking needed medical care. With people who are experiencing chronic loneliness, the quality of interactions, not the quantity, is often more important.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE
Foster cross-generational activities / relationships
Multigenerational initiatives to combat loneliness can forge a variety of in-person and digital connections. Mon Ami, in the San Francisco area, originally linked the families of older people with college students for weekly activities like walks, memoir writing, and Scrabble. Its new digital investments paid off when Covid hit, increasing social isolation among older and younger people alike. Mon Ami licensed its tech platform and apps to organizations like SAGE, a national LGBT advocacy group. SAGE launched Sage Connect, which matches older LGBT adults and young people for weekly phone or video chats.
Develop peer support activities tailored to specific groups
Men’s Sheds provide a welcoming place for men who are lonely and need an easy way to gather for support, woodworking, and other activities. Although chronic loneliness affects all genders, men tend to find it harder to make social connections than women. As they get older they often have fewer friends to do things with and talk to about personal concerns. Retirement can also make social isolation worse. Staying active and social, learning new things, and working with others on projects can provide fun, connection, and purpose.
Research studies demonstrate how pervasive and damaging loneliness can be. From Psychology Today.
Website of the UK’s innovative project offering podcasts, research, resources, and stories.
Lecture (video) by John Cacioppo. PhD, a leading loneliness researcher at the University of Chicago. Available on YouTube. (Also a book.)
A review of multiple studies on the health and morbidity effects of loneliness. From the peer-reviewed academic journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Research shows contradictory results on interventions; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. From the peer-reviewed academic journal, BMC Public Health.
Findings of a large longitudinal study of older Americans. From the peer-reviewed medical journal, Archives of Internal Medicine, published by the American Medical Association..
Article discussing the rise in loneliness in general and among young adults. From Forbes.
Article describing impacts of loneliness among older adults and some promising interventions. From The New York Times.
A comprehensive review of the impacts of social isolation and loneliness on health, including risk factors, mechanisms, factors, and interventions. From The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. (Free download.)
Article exploring the causes and consequences of loneliness and innovative initiatives that connect young and older people using technology. From Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Proceedings of conference on loneliness and supplemental resources. From the Aspen Institute.
Dr. Lisa Gennetian
Professor of Public Policy and Early Learning Policy Studies, Duke University
Dr. Rose Lopez
Director, Wellness and Recovery Training and Anti-stigma Group liaison, Pacific Clinical Services, Los Angeles
Dr. Isha Metzger
Professor of Psychology and Director of the Empower Lab, University of Georgia
Director of Research and Programs and Jattna Gomez, Director of Equity and Community Engagement, SAFE Center, University of Maryland
Former Executive Director, One Just City, Winnipeg, Canada
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