Column: Combatting the loneliness epidemic


Commentary by Lorene Burkhart

When I recently read that we are having a loneliness epidemic, I wasn’t surprised, knowing that there are 26 million Americans older than 50 who live alone. Loneliness is defined as the difference between the social connections we would like to have and those we actually have. This epidemic is causing a variety of serious health issues, especially among the elderly, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and depression.

When new single residents who know no one but their adult child who lives nearby move into my retirement community, I explain that it’s like going to college. Meals and activities are at certain times, and they are surrounded by new people. This can be overwhelming at any age, but especially for the elderly. Our welcoming committee immediately makes contact and one of the committee members becomes their helper. By knowing something about their background – career, education, hobbies – we can connect them with residents who have similar interests. Couples find it easier to adjust to community living because they can lean on each other.

There are circles of friendship that begin with the inner circle who is a spouse, significant other or close friend. The middle circle is occasional companions, and the outer circle are colleagues and acquaintances. This circle is why we join clubs and organizations. When the inner circle has “no other” is when loneliness can become acute. There are questions like

“Who will help me in an emergency? Who will be there when I come home from the hospital?” People who live alone need to have emergency plans in place before they are needed.

Building friendships requires thinking about the needs and desires of another person, then taking action to help them be fulfilled. The result is a wonderful feeling of gratitude for the giver and the recipient. It builds over time and grows into the closeness we all need in our lives.

In a book “Together” by Vivek H. Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States, I learned about the healing power of human connection in a sometimes-lonely world. It helped me understand the devastating effects of our recent pandemic and how we can find our way again.

Social connections can be a start to building new relationships and lasting friendships. Picking up your phone and actually hearing a voice is so much better than an email. I maintain a weekly phone date with a close friend who lives in another city. Whatever works. We are never too old to start new friendships.