Loneliness and Social Isolation

August 3, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 28
Do they pose a growing health epidemic? By Christina L. Lyons

Current Situation

Potential Solutions

Although the Trump administration has not proposed specific policies related to reducing loneliness or isolation, President Trump has signed into law two measures that aim to help caregivers for the elderly and grandparents caring for children of parents addicted to opioids. Experts say family caregivers for senior citizens often feel lonely and isolated, as do the children of opioid addicts.

“The loneliness felt by many family caregivers compounds their emotional suffering, making it harder for them to sustain themselves over time,” said Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and family therapist and a member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel.73

In January, Trump signed a measure calling on the secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a strategy to support families caring for aging relatives. The bipartisan measure, introduced by Sens. Collins of Maine and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., aimed to ease the costs for family caregivers.74

People share a bench in South Pointe Park in Miami (Getty Images/Universal Images Group/Jeff Greenberg)  
People share a bench in South Pointe Park in Miami. Some researchers are encouraging cities to provide more places, such as in parks or at libraries, where people can socialize, in part to help alleviate feelings of isolation or loneliness. (Getty Images/Universal Images Group/Jeff Greenberg)

In July, Trump also signed legislation to provide resources to help grandparents raising grandchildren whose parents are addicted to opioids. About 2.6 million children are being raised by grandparents, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.75

Meanwhile, the CDC remains focused on preventing suicide, in part by developing strategies to boost the social connections of individuals exhibiting nonfatal suicidal behavior and expanding research on how to monitor those social connections.76

Former Surgeon General Murthy continues to push companies to help reduce isolation in the workplace. While new models of working, such as telecommuting and a heavier reliance on independent contractors, give employees and companies greater flexibility, they also can reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships, said Murthy. “And even working at an office doesn't guarantee meaningful connections,” he said.77

Meanwhile, a Minneapolis-based company called Blue Zones is helping local communities and organizations devise ways to improve residents’ health, in part by improving social connectedness. The program is based on studies of so-called Blue Zone areas that have exceptional longevity, such as Sardinia's Nuoro province, which has the world's largest concentration of male centenarians, and three other areas: Japan's island of Okinawa, Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula and a Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif.78

Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner, with support from the National Geographic Society, identified certain commonalities among the communities, including social structures that keep the elderly in the community and in extended-family homes and residents’ participation in regular group activities.

Buettner says he tries to help other communities adopt social habits similar to those found in the Blue Zones. His organization works with government leaders, schools, workplaces, grocery stores and others to create social groups and volunteer opportunities for residents and to help communities design walkable towns with accessible community areas like parks.

Overseas Efforts

The United Kingdom's new minister of loneliness, Tracey Crouch, is leading a group seeking ways to alleviate isolation and loneliness, focusing heavily on the elderly. An earlier government survey indicated about 200,000 British seniors had not talked with a friend or relative in more than a month. Meanwhile, Britain's Office for National Statistics is crafting a method to measure loneliness.79

The appointment of a minister of loneliness was recommended by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, established in 2016, which concluded that isolation had become a social crisis and called for a way to measure how government policies affect families. The commission was named after Cox, a member of Parliament who formed the commission and had suffered from loneliness herself. She was murdered in 2016 by an unemployed man suffering from depression.80

Meanwhile, Scotland is pursuing a national strategy to tackle social isolation and loneliness after a report by a nonprofit mental health association found that 11 percent of Scottish adults often feel lonely. Last spring, the government circulated a draft strategy listing ways to build cohesive communities, encourage kindness, tackle poverty and address inequality, among other things. In Ireland, Sen. Keith Swanick, a general practitioner in Belmullet, set up a task force to analyze the loneliness problem after researchers estimated that 400,000 people were suffering from loneliness.81

In Japan, which has the world's fastest growing elderly population and where a quarter of its population is over 65, about 30,000 people die alone each year. Analysts blame persistent economic stagnation, which left many families and communities frayed. Meanwhile, the country's Baby Boom Generation has aged and Japan's birth rate declined, leaving many elderly with no one to care for them.82

The problem has led to the rise of an unorthodox industry, which allows people to pay for actors to pretend to be relatives — such as a wife for a bereaved widower or relatives to fill out seats at a wedding.83

China's growing elderly population also faces loneliness and isolation, largely due to the Communist government's one-child-per-couple population-control policy from 1979 to 2016. Because Chinese culture prefers sons over daughters, many couples ended their pregnancies during that period if they found their unborn child was female. China now has millions more men than women, leaving fewer daughters to care for aging parents, as custom dictates.

In addition, the gender imbalance means that by 2020 the nation will have some 30 million more men ages 24-40 than women, making it difficult for men to find a partner, according to sociologist Jin Tiankui.84

And in South Korea, middle-aged men increasingly are at risk of dying alone. In 2013, more than 3,300 cases of solitary deaths in Seoul were reported, 162 of which involved people in their 50s, and men comprised 84.6 percent of those deaths. “Middle-aged men are more easily exposed to socioeconomic changes due to situations like early retirement, divorce and bad health,” Dr. Lee Ho-sun, the director of a center for seniors in Seoul, said. They also tend to shut their doors to society when they are in despair, he said.85

The Seoul government is encouraging local communities to help reduce the number of such deaths by creating neighborhood groups to visit those who live alone.86

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[73] Barry J. Jacobs, “Overcoming the Loneliness of Dementia Caregiving,” AARP, https://tinyurl.com/yapj4col.

[74] “U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Tammy Baldwin Praise Signage of Bipartisan RAISE Family Caregivers Act,” Senate Special Committee on Aging, Jan. 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9xhclz6; Jo Ann Jenkins, “Caregiving Costly to Family Caregivers,” AARP, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8djz6jx.

[75] “Collins, Casey Bill to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Heads to President's Desk to be Signed into Law,” press release, Senate Special Committee on Aging, June 21, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycdkr47w.

[76] “Connectedness as a Strategic Direction for the Prevention of Suicidal Behavior,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://tinyurl.com/y9p5lxup.

[77] Murthy, op. cit.

[78] Dan Buettner, “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 24, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/yar2fmw7.

[79] Ceylan Yeginsu, “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness,” The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yd4rczn6.

[80] “UK must tackle loneliness, says Jo Cox Commission report,” BBC News, Dec. 14, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybdlp724.

[81] “A Connected Scotland: Tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections,” Government of Scotland, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9f5suuu; Joanna Teuton, “Social isolation and loneliness in Scotland: a review of prevalence and trends,” Edinburgh: NHS Health Scotland, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7txh2rl; Helen O'Callaghan, “All the lonely people: Epidemic of loneliness is leading to chronic health problems,” The Guardian, March 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya66t4ln.

[82] Norimitsu Onishi, “A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death,” The New York Times, Nov. 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yctnjohb; Anna Fifield, “Cleaning Up After the Dead,” The Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8usqxvo.

[83] Elif Batuman, “Japan's Rent-a-Family Industry,” The New Yorker, April 30, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y83kvrdt.

[84] Mei Fong, One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment (2016); Wanning Sun, “’My parents say hurry up and find a girl,’” The Guardian, Sept. 28, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ydgzjnpt.

[85] “‘Lonely Deaths’ Haunt Middle-Aged Men More Than Other Age Groups,” Korea Bizwire, Dec. 4, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yamg92h7.

[86] Isabella Steger, “Middle-aged men in South Korea are particularly at risk of dying alone,” Quartz, March 22, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybazlalo.

Document APA Citation
Lyons, C. L. (2018, August 3). Loneliness and Social Isolation. CQ researcher, 28, 657-680. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2018080305
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2018080305
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