The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, recently sounded an alarm to highlight a newly identified public health crisis — one of loneliness, isolation, and a sense of disconnection among people living in our country. Even before the start of the pandemic in 2020, about half of U.S. adults said they struggled with significant feelings of isolation. Loneliness impacts physical and mental health and even boosts the likelihood of premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.
Social isolation puts people at greater risk for dementia, too, among other serious medical problems. (For heart failure patients, loneliness was associated with almost 4 times increased risk of death, 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization, and 57 percent increased likelihood of emergency department visits.)
But like so many of life’s issues, social isolation can be conquered or greatly lessened when individuals create plans for staying in touch with old friends and even making new acquaintances and buddies.
Let’s look at the definitions: Loneliness is a feeling of isolation among folks who want to experience a greater level of social connections. Usually, it’s associated with an unwanted separation from, or rejection by, others. Solitude, however, is different. Those who especially enjoy spending time alone continue to maintain positive social relationships— but on their own terms and timetables.
Sometimes it’s intimidating to be the one to approach others in new situations or to extend the hand of possible friendship to a new acquaintance. Different people have different comfort levels, but remember this powerful quote from the brilliant philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
There are many avenues to consider:
Enhance existing relationships.
- A logical starting point is to work with what one already has. A New York Times article, “How to Have Closer Friendships (and Why You Need Them)” is a confidence builder.
Rekindle and nurture old friendships, even if they’ve been on pause.
- First, if you’re comfortable using it, social media sites such as Facebook are an ideal tool for connecting with old friends. Here are a few how-to tips. If you’re unfamiliar with social media and want to dip a toe into the water, grab a friend or younger person who is in the know and ask for a quick tutorial. Or check out this post, “The Best Free Online Courses for Mastering Facebook.”
- Second, how about a reunion? Reunions can be powerful, and they are fuel for reconnecting with people you know and care about. Life gets busy, and sometimes relationships take a back burner. Reunions range from small to large and from simple to complex. One group of six old friends who love their periodic reunions in places from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to Boston, Massachusetts, met in college 50 years ago. These gatherings help them maintain their bonds, despite being scattered across the country. Zoom calls and group texts reinforce their closeness between in-person gatherings. A large family reunion is an undertaking that requires more effort, but what a lot of fun one can be. Here’s an aptly named planning guide: “Family Reunions: 10 Steps to Plan (and Save Your Sanity).”
Nurture new connections.
- An initiative called Big and Mini aims to bridge generations to create meaningful bonds and combat social isolation. Through the beauty of phone or video call conversations, connections can be made in minutes. (Participants go through training and orientation before diving in.)
- Join others in a shared hobby. For example, many public libraries invite people in for no-cost activities such as book clubs, board game nights, and author talks. Here’s a local example of a fun, no-cost event, the “One Houston, One Book Block Party.”
- Check out meetup groups, where there is — no exaggeration — a gathering to appeal to almost anyone. For the past 20-plus years, meetup has encouraged people worldwide to reach out to like-minded folks.
- I saved the best idea for last: if you’re not already benefiting from this valuable pastime, consider volunteering. Whether you want to help save the planet, feed the hungry with groups like Rise Against Hunger Houston, or help animals in need with groups like Best Friends Houston, endless organizations are hungry for your time and talent. Plus, volunteering overflows with benefits to the giver.
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