A group of friends in our community were recently discussing the prevalence of loneliness in today’s society, acknowledging that covid has contributed greatly to the increase in isolation for people of all ages. Even though loneliness existed prior to this, it is now recognised, unfortunately, as an increasing health issue as this graph shows.
Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation and it can have a serious effect on their health. However, there are ways to overcome loneliness, even if you live alone and find it hard to get out.
As people age, they have a greater need for belonging to a community because of their need for continuing social contact as family and work colleagues fall away. And sometimes as we age, we require physical support for various reasons.
According to Age UK, more than two million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.
People can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons, such as getting older or weaker, no longer being the hub of their family, leaving the workplace, the deaths of spouses and friends, or through disability or illness.
Maybe there is a way to reverse this alarming trend.
As the authors of this article, we would like to share our lived experience of how being a part of an active community lessens our feelings of loneliness and isolation whether we live alone or with others.
One approach to living in community can be through shared housing (having housemates). Sometimes living in shared accommodation is forced upon people because of financial circumstances. However, more and more people are choosing to have the shared living experience in order to enjoy the benefits of companionship and learning to live together harmoniously, as well as sharing the financial expenses.
Another way we experience community is by being a part of a group of people with shared values, creating an opportunity to expand our lives in a meaningful and purposeful way through social get-togethers and projects.
Shared dinners are an example of how our community stays connected, everyone brings a plate, we have focused conversations meaning everyone contributes to one larger conversation allowing space for each person to express. Our alcohol-free community gatherings last only a couple of hours but everyone leaves fulfilled.
An example of a project is the Joy of Ageing Esoterically book, website and newsletter. Our team of ten women, who live over a 200km radius, meet weekly on zoom to discuss new topics and articles for the expansion of the website. Some people might argue or complain that digital technology is actually contributing to the sense of separation and isolation in society today. Others champion the benefits of technology which enables them to stay connected virtually whilst unable to get together face to face. Technology is part of our current and ever-changing world and we have the choice to embrace it as a form of community life, or not.
Establishing a foundation of true community life as we have written about above enables us to offer that connection further afield to our neighbours and the larger community in which we live, volunteer and work.
It is well researched that loneliness can cause mental health problems, such as anxiety, emotional distress, depression and can lead to addictions. Loneliness can also increase the risk of suicidal death. Recent studies found that social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes and is also associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia.
It is often suggested that there are ways to overcome loneliness such as exercising, buying a pet, volunteering and having new experiences. These are good suggestions but there is more we can do. We are all in this life together so living in community seems a natural way to alleviate loneliness.
If you sit back and wait for someone to send you an invitation, it may be a long wait. Alternatively, taking responsibility by being proactive and reaching out to someone can be the first step to a new experience or a new connection within your community. Being aware of the detrimental repercussions of loneliness and social isolation is an excellent motivation to maintain connection with others, be it one on one or with a small group.
Deidre M, Gayle C, Annie M, Australia
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Staying Socially Active in the Community is Good Medicine