Loneliness and Social Isolation

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

Short Features

Helping the Elderly Stay Connected
Divisive Politics Fueling Distrust and Isolation

It's “every bit as important as food and water and shelter.”

Jim O'Brien, age 80 and a lifelong bachelor, lives in Minneapolis far from his eight siblings. As he aged, his social life dwindled.

Then a few years ago, O'Brien met Caitlin Heaney, now 27, through a nonprofit program called Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly that aims to relieve loneliness among seniors. The two quickly became friends, and they now share a meal at a restaurant once a month and hold piano concerts at the senior housing facility where O'Brien lives.1

“Social engagement is every bit as important as food and water and shelter,” said James Falvey, the program's executive director.2

Amid an explosion of scientific studies associating loneliness or social isolation with illnesses such as dementia and cardiovascular disease, more and more communities, nonprofits and volunteer groups are testing new ways to care for seniors and help alleviate loneliness.

In about 350 communities across the United States, for instance, groups of seniors are forming their own “villages” to help each other stay in their homes. Under the concept, which originated in Boston in 2002, residents pay membership dues averaging a few hundred dollars a year to a neighborhood-based membership organization that employs a small support staff. Volunteers help connect the residents to discounted services and organized social activities.

“When you're a widow and it's a Friday night, this lets you meet people you can go to a play with,” said Ann Schummers, an organizer of a Massachusetts village called “Concord After 60.”3

In a 2016 study of seven villages in California by University of California, Berkeley, researchers, 74 percent of respondents said they know more people and 54 percent said they feel more connected with others because of their village membership. Still, the researchers said the seniors already were in good health and well-connected socially when they joined their village.4

Experts say that while innovative approaches can help many seniors stay connected, the challenges of social isolation and loneliness could grow significantly as the population ages. The number of Americans age 65 or older is expected to reach an estimated 98 million by 2060, roughly double today's count.5

Team members cheer for Ginny Williams (Getty Images/Portland Press Herald/Jill Brady)  
Team members cheer for Ginny Williams, 98, far left, in April 2018 at the Big 20 Bowling Center in Scarborough, Maine. Shared social activities can keep the elderly engaged and help alleviate feelings of loneliness, psychologists say. (Getty Images/Portland Press Herald/Jill Brady)

Moreover, many experts say societal changes such as dwindling family sizes, rising divorce rates among older Americans, increased numbers of people living alone and higher rates of distrust of other people could exacerbate loneliness by reducing the number of social connections.

“The importance of having available a social network cannot be overstated in guarding against social isolation,” Lenard W. Kaye, director of the University of Maine's Center on Aging, told the Senate Special Committee on Aging last year. “Family, friends, neighbors and professional caregivers provide social support, social influence, create a buffer against stress, increase your access to resources and can even stimulate your immune system.”6

While estimates vary on the extent of loneliness among older Americans, an oft-cited 2010 AARP study found that about 25 percent of those older than 70 reported feelingly lonely, compared with 43 percent among those ages 45 to 49.7

Yet Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer suspects many elderly Americans may be lonelier than they indicate on surveys. Many may compare themselves to other elderly people they know and think, “‘At my age, if I can get out of bed or get to church every week I'm doing pretty good,’” Fischer says.

Research into the effectiveness of programs to alleviate loneliness are limited, says Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist at University of Chicago's NORC, a social research center. But for elderly people who are painfully lonely or dangerously isolated, it is important to help them make meaningful connections that will improve or at least protect their health, she says.

“We can't expect putting mom in [an assisted living] facility will make her less isolated,” Hawkley says. “She might actually be lonelier.”

While some older people living in retirement communities engage in the group social activities available, a few studies have said loneliness was a potential cause for depression among some residents. A study conducted in 2011, for instance, found that about 29 percent of residents in retirement communities in northern Ohio reported feelings of loneliness.8

Meanwhile, some evidence suggests positive health effects of programs enabling social connections for the elderly, particularly across generations. A 2015 study on community involvement and volunteerism among people ages 65 to 84 found a decrease in reported feelings of loneliness, from 63 percent of respondents to 43 percent.9

That echoes evidence from a program in Baltimore called Experience Corps, which helps seniors mentor students in public schools, Hawkley says. A 2004 study found that the program resulted in improved physical, cognitive and social activity among the older volunteers, and another study found that test scores improved among children in grades K-3 whom the volunteers mentored.10

“Both sides really came to see the value of the other,” Hawkley says, “and they ended up forming really good relationships.”

— Christina L. Lyons

[1] Tom Weber, “How loneliness may be killing us,” MPRNews, May 31, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yctc3n4w.

[2] “Watch Our Mission in Action,” Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, Minneapolis/St. Paul Chapter, https://tinyurl.com/y8aupntm.

[3] Robert Weisman, “For some seniors, a cultural shift and a vital volunteerism,” The Boston Globe, July 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yckbexce; Ina Jaffe, “‘Village Movement’ Allows Elderly To Age In Their Homes,” NPR, Dec. 12, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yckbexce.

[4] Carrie Graham, Andrew E. Scharlach, and Elaine Kurtovich, “Do Villages Promote Aging in Place? Results of a Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Applied Gerontology, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yb3wxowd.

[5] “Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States,” Population Reference Bureau, Jan. 13, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y9sqeqhb; “Facts for Features: Older Americans Month: May 2017,” U.S. Census Bureau, April 10, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y83uyxoh.

[6] Lenard W. Kaye, “Hearing on ‘Aging Without Community: The Consequences of Isolation and Loneliness,’” Senate Special Committee on Aging, April 27, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yaf29te4.

[7] G. Oscar Anderson, “Loneliness Among Older Adults: A Survey of Adults 45+,” AARP, September 2010, https://tinyurl.com/yccxl8pl.

[8] Abir K. Bekhet and Jaclene A. Zauszniewski, “Mental Health of elders in retirement communities: Is loneliness a key factor?” Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, June 10, 2011, https://tinyurl.com/y8hjote4.

[9] Manuela Dias et al., “Intervention in the Loneliness of the Elderly — What Strategies, Challenges and Rewards?” Journal of Health Science, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/ycc3ysn4.

[10] Linda P. Fried et al., “A social model for health promotion for an aging population: Initial evidence on the experience Corps model,” Journal of Urban Health, March 2004, https://tinyurl.com/ycbk4lsj; George W. Rebok et al., “Short-term impact of experience Corps participation on children and schools: Results from a pilot randomized trial,” Journal of Urban Health, March 2004, https://tinyurl.com/y8lw7trn.

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“That's not ideal for American democracy.”

Social isolation and loneliness are associated not only with poor physical or mental health but also with the health of the nation's democracy, sociologists, behavioral scientists and political experts say.

Today's divisive political discourse makes people want to isolate themselves even more than in the past, suggests Steve Cole, a professor of medicine, biology, psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The current political climate “creates this view that other people” — particularly those with different political views — “cannot be trusted,” he says.

Sociologists say distrust of people with opposing views fuels a cycle in which social isolation or loneliness and political polarization feed each other.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, families who lived on farms depended on their neighbors for help, sociologist Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone, a landmark 2000 book that explores the erosion of community ties in American society. Through organizations such as the Grange, which supported the agricultural and social needs of American farmers, rural families socialized with people who did not necessarily share the similar political views but had the same drive to keep their farms running and raise their children.

“You might not like or agree with your neighbor, but you could understand why someone might hold an opposing viewpoint,” said Marc J. Dunkelman, research fellow at Brown University's A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy.11

But after the 1960s, Americans increasingly narrowed their networks of friends and family and rearranged themselves into politically compatible communities and neighborhoods, according to journalist Bill Bishop, author of the 2008 book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. From 1976 to 2016, the percentage of voters who lived in solidly Democratic or Republican counties rose from about 27 percent to 60 percent.12

Today, only about one in five Americans believes that most or all of their neighbors share their political views, although the proportion is higher — close to one-third — for both urban Democrats and rural Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.13 Moreover, in 2016, only half of Americans said they trusted most or all of their neighbors, and young adults were significantly less trusting of others than older generations, according to Pew.14

People today are likely to interact only with neighbors who share their political views or have the same ethnic identity and social class, Pew survey results show. About 58 percent of Americans who believe their neighbors share their political views speak to those neighbors in person on a weekly basis, but only 42 percent of those who said only “some” or “none” of their neighbors shared their political views speak to those neighbors weekly.15

Sociologists and mental health experts say face-to-face interaction is important because if individuals become socially isolated, they feel less socially competent and then are more likely to withdraw, perpetuating their isolation and loneliness. Furthermore, people who are socially isolated are less empathetic and more hostile and aggressive, according to San Diego State University psychologist Jean M. Twenge and Florida State University social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.16

Political researchers have found that face-to-face interaction — even for just a few minutes — can reduce prejudices and change voters’ opinions on certain issues. Stanford University's David Broockman, an assistant professor of political economy, and Joshua Kalla, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, reported in a study published in Science that even a 10-minute, face-to-face-conversation can change views.17

But Americans no longer feel they need one another like they did in the 1800s, Cole says. Technology has created new marketplaces for labor, food, shelter and social communication, he says, changing neighborhood dynamics in the process.

And even within their own geographic neighborhoods, people are disengaging more than in the past. They are participating in few civic, religious or social groups, says Sara Konrath, an associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University in Indianapolis. And more broadly, she says, “there has been a decline of socializing with people who aren't like us.”

That is worrisome for political discourse, Konrath says. “If everyone had just our best friends and our family, what would our world look like? We wouldn't care what was happening in the world …, in our community …, in our country, in our state. That's not ideal for American democracy.”

— Christina L. Lyons

[11] Marc J. Dunkelman, “Next-Door Strangers: The Crisis of Urban Anonymity,” The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8adq8yh.

[12] Matthew Shaw, “Political Isolation Among Young Americans,” Harvard Political Review, April 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y87hbc5n.

[13] Kim Parker et al., “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities,” Pew Researcher Center, May 2018, pp. 70–73, https://tinyurl.com/ybhapxv5.

[14] “George Gao, “Americans divided on how much they trust their neighbors,” Pew Research Center, April 13, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ybtotrgb.

[15] Parker et. al., op. cit.

[16] Jean M. Twenge and Roy F. Baumeister, “Social Exclusion Increases Aggression and Self-Defeating Behavior While Reducing Intelligent Thought and Prosocial Behavior,” in Dominic Abrams, Michael A. Hogg and Jose M. Marques (eds.), The Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion (2013), pp. 27–46.

[17] Benoit Denizet-Lewis, “How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation,” The New York Times Magazine, April 7, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/hww6xdb; David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, “Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing,” Science, April 8, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yb59a7av.

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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: cqresrre2018080320
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2018080320
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