Loneliness kills (Sam wonders what we can do)

“Loneliness kills” is the headline  on a new crop of stories about the health impact of loneliness.

The New York Times calls it an epidemic.

Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.

“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem,” said Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”

In Britain and the United States, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. Studies in both countries show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 percent to 46 percent.

CBC’s White Coat, Black Art notes that the health impacts of loneliness can equal or surpass that of smoking a, pack of cigarettes a day.

This is not about people who enjoy solitude by choice — it’s about people who spend long periods without social contact.  The effects of that are tangible and they are growing. It’s no surprise that loneliness leads to increased rates of depression and alcohol use.  More surprising is the impact that social isolation has on your physical well-being. According to a study out of  Brigham Young University, loneliness is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  It is even more damaging to your to body than obesity and diabetes.  Lonely people are at greater risk of heart attacks.  Loneliness can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 64 per cent.  And if the subject has cancer, then loneliness can increase the risk that the cancer spreads.

When Tracy and I were chatting yesterday about advice we’d to give to people who were just starting out, we wanted to tell people to find a fitness community.I was struck by how many people don’t have someone to exercise with when I read about the man who walks with people for a living.

The Guardian story about him is headlined ‘We need human interaction’: meet the LA man who walks people for a living

Chuck McCarthy recently auditioned as a homicidal biker for a TV show, but the actor is finding glimmers of fame, and possibly a business franchise, with another role: Los Angeles’s first people walker.

He walks humans for $7 a mile around the streets and park near his home, pioneering an alternative to dog walking that requires no leash, just an ability to walk, talk and, above all, listen.

I found the story about him to be intriguing. I’m supervising a PhD student working on questions about what should or shouldn’t be for sale (are there moral limits on the market?) and one of the question that interests me concerns the sale of intimate human relationships (sex is the obvious one, but also too friendship).

I don’t disapprove. He sounds perfectly charming and his rates aren’t even particularly steep.

But what can we do for non LA resident seniors in need of company? Because McCarthy is all about walking, I started thinking of walking clubs. Just show up at a set time each day, walk and talk, tea and coffee after. I’m also a  big fan of co-housing and experiments about cooperative living. Friends know well my fantasy alpaca farm/commune (you know for after the collapse of the universities) which survives of bicycle tourism.

And I’m charmed too by stories about university students taking up rooms in seniors homes. Or preschools and daycares located in seniors facilities.

Gretchen Rubin suggest these 7 strategies to combat loneliness.

But sticking for a moment to physical activity, what other ideas do you have to help older people combat loneliness and get moving?


7 thoughts on “Loneliness kills (Sam wonders what we can do)

  1. This American society tends to place too much emphasis on individualism as both an individuals and collectively as groups with one group playing off against other groups for the last 46 years. Time to get back working together as a group for the better health of the community as a whole.

    Some retirement communities have programs where the senior citizens get together with the kids to help each other out so it keeps the seniors active and not feel lonely while at the same time, the kids have someone to listen to and get some advice from them since they can’t get their parents to listen to them and come to them for help. It is kind of sad when kids can’t go to their parents for help and have to get it from other people.

  2. I agree with the previous comment about our lack of community and sense of obligation towards the elderly. We’re raised to be independent but also to mind our own business and not talk to strangers. It’s terrible for building community. The elderly are in a particularly tough (lonely) situation as their friends and siblings might be ill or dead. I don’t intend to have kids, so this thought terrifies me. But I like the idea of walking groups and community centers that offer different activities where people can interact.

  3. You can’t blame Chuck McCarthy for creating a people walking business for a couple of reasons. First of all, acting is exactly wall to wall employment, so most actors and actresses have secondary jobs. Secondly, at least the guy saw a service not being provided so he created one which is what many great entrepreneurs have told future entrepreneurs – find something that is not being provided so go out and create it.

  4. I think it’s important to note that loneliness is not simply “cured” by spending time with people. That helps but it can also be very isolating if the relationships aren’t close and you don’t feel connected or able to be totally yourself. I think the lack of consistent support and presence from people with whom a person has close relationships is not easily addressed by getting out with others once in awhile. As someone who has experienced this deeply over the past few months some of the proposed “solutions,” as nice as they are, strike me as simplistic.

  5. We might want to distinguish too between social isolation and loneliness. Many of the seniors talked about here experience both. Like actually going days and weeks without talking to another person. I guess your point is that you can be lonely, even deeply lonely, without being socially isolated.

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