Loneliness: An Epidemic and A High Risk for Veterans
Loneliness has doubled in the U.S. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Americans who responded that they regularly or frequently felt lonely was between 11 percent and 20 percent (depending on
the study).1 Just a few decades later in 2010, AARP performed a national survey that found that
loneliness had increased to between 40 and 45 percent among adults.2 And in 2017, former
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called loneliness an “epidemic” and stated that “loneliness shortens lifespans in a way similar to smoking 15 cigarettes / day”.3
The destructive effects of loneliness don’t end there. People who identified themselves as lonely had a statistically significant 45 percent greater risk of death.4 "People aren’t [technically] dying of loneliness. But they are dying of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, accidents, suicide and diabetes. Based on your genetics and your environmental history, loneliness can make these conditions strike earlier than they otherwise would have," said Dr. John Cacioppo of the
University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.5 In fact, according to a
2018 study (by AARP, Stanford University, and Harvard University), Medicare spends $6.7 billion more annually on socially isolated older adults compared to adults that are not isolated.6
Isolated Veterans living at home have a high risk of feeling loneliness, so it’s that much more important to identify the warning signs that your loved one is feeling lonely.
Signs of Loneliness
Here are some of the signs to look for so that you can seek help:
1. Poor Sleep. Individuals who are suffering from loneliness often have poor sleep. According to Dr. John Cacioppo, "A handful of studies have shown that when you’re lonely, your brain remains alert for threats and you show more micro awakenings or sleep fragmentation. This has an adaptive purpose: If you’re isolated, you could be predated at any moment. It doesn’t matter whether you are sleeping next to someone—if you feel isolated, that causes the brain to remain on alert."7
2. Frequent Sickness. Individuals that are lonely are more likely to get sick. Dr. Cacioppo stated, “We’ve found loneliness is associated with altered gene-expression, which makes you more susceptible to viruses, a correlation that has been shown in humans and animals.”8
3 See https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic.
4 See https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/06/12184/loneliness-linked-serious-health-problems-and-death-among-elderly.
6 See https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2017/10/medicare-spends-more-on-socially-isolated-older-adults.pdf
3. Longer, Hotter Showers. Studies indicate that lonely people take longer and hotter showers--the lonelier the person, the longer the shower and the hotter the preferred temperature. According to Dr. John Bargh, Professor of Psychology at Yale University and administrator at Yale's Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation (ACME) Lab, "[P]eople tend to self-regulate their feelings of social warmth through applications of physical warmth, apparently without explicit awareness of doing so."9
4. Buying More Stuff. Individuals that are feeling lonely may look to fill a void through more consumer spending. According to a study conducted by Dr. John Lastovicka of Arizona State, "We...find that material possession love is empirically tied to loneliness and social affiliation deficits, which suggests a compensatory basis of consumer well-being."10
5. Having Friends Who Are Lonely. Loneliness can be contagious. According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, individuals are "more likely to be lonely if a person they are directly connected to (at one degree of
separation) is lonely."11 Dr. Cacioppo theorizes that loneliness is passed on through
negativity and lack of trust. "People who feel lonely view the social world as more threatening," he says. "They may not be aware they are doing it, but lonely individuals think negatively about other people. So if you are my friend, and I started to treat you negatively, then over time, we would stop being friends. But in the meantime, our interactions caused you to treat other people less positively, so you're likely to lose friends, and they in turn are likely to lose friends. That appears to be the means of
transmission for loneliness."12 Negative feelings can be passed on by people when they
frown or make unpleasant facial expressions, make negative comments, or even use anti-social body language.
Ways to Overcome Loneliness
Where caregivers of Veterans are actively trying to help, often Veterans are still isolated for long periods of time and may still struggle with loneliness. Still, there are ways to combat isolation and loneliness:
1. Have a Purpose. Regardless of whether Veterans live alone, they can still have a purpose. Even with advancing age, there is a world of opportunity for Veterans to identify a purpose for their lives. Veterans can record their personal and family history, learn a musical instrument, or start reading that volume of books about World War II that they’ve always wanted to.
10 See https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/38/2/323/1894880?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
11 See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792572/.
One exciting way of having a purpose for seniors is starting a “Bucket List.” What have you dreamed of doing in this life? Where have you dreamed of traveling? Whether the answer to those questions is whale watching, eating a new food like calamari, or finally reading “War and Peace,” anything is possible.
Psychotherapist and author Ross Rosenberg recommends to those wanting to overcome loneliness: "Open yourself up, take risks, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Since loneliness results in isolation, experiment by sharing aspects of yourself, including experiences, feelings, memories, dreams, desires, etc. This will help you feel more known and understood."13
2. Get Involved. Veterans who are isolated are at greater risk of loneliness. "There's no hard-and-fast rule that everyone needs to be involved with others all the time, but we tend to feel better when we're with others, and we may feel worse if we're often alone," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry.14
There are many ways to get involved in your community. From joining a club (e.g., bridge club, mahjong club, jazz club, etc.) to volunteering (e.g., helping provide information at a local shopping mall, delivering Meals On Wheels, becoming a mentor, tutoring, etc.), there are lots of ways to get involved. Most cities have local resources available for Veterans that has a calendar of events (e.g., women’s events, hikes, golf events, holiday ceremonies, encampments, job fairs, benefit open houses, gun shows, etc.).
If Veterans prefer to stay at home or have mobility limitations, there are more and more resources available online, including online book clubs, online family history, online games (e.g., chess, Scrabble, fantasy sports, etc.) and online classes (e.g., learning a musical instrument, cooking, dance, gardening, mechanics, learning a new language, lectures and podcasts, etc.).
"When you're alone, you focus too much on yourself and dwell on regrets or worries. When you're with other people, you turn your focus outward. When you're thinking less about yourself, you're worrying less about yourself," says Dr. Miller.15
3. Take Advantage of New Technology. For decades aging Veterans have had very limited options for companionship while living at home, other than family or caregivers. A new company, Veras (www.veras.com), provides a cheaper and easier alternative. Veras provides senior home care via video calling and allows aging Veterans to stay in the place they most love--their homes.
Veras leverages simple video calling technology (similar to Skype or FaceTime) to pair aging seniors one-on-one with Veras Remote Companions to provide companionship and personal assistance. Veras Remote Companions provide medication reminders, schedule doctor appointments, play games, and provide companionship through conversation. Veras Remote Companions also help family members stay in the loop by sending weekly email reports about activities (Watch video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fbo-NE0l2wo).
Thankfully there is growing awareness around the problem of loneliness, and, where we all make efforts to help those around us, we can make a difference.