Manage loneliness by finding meaningful connections
AN OLD friend mentioned in a recent email to another school friend that I had just moved to town and was feeling lonely so could I be included in a reunion lunch. Coincidently, the email wasn't supposed to have me copied in.
When I read it, I felt quite miffed that I was seen as being lonely. It might have been true, but the public labelling of me in this way without me ever saying that was the case left me feeling lousy.
There is a strong stigma associated with admitting you are lonely, Dr Barbara Neves, a senior sociology lecturer at Monash University, has found.
"Particularly in later life,'' she said. "This is because some older people already feel so stigmatised, so patronised because they are old and frail, and so loneliness adds another layer to a comprised sense of personhood and dignity, particularly in a society obsessed with being young."
But, is it that I am just alone rather than lonely?
Al: "I never allow myself to (be) LONELY!
Occupy your mind with activity that you've always wanted to do while you can. I love being on my own (not lonely)."
Being alone is often when we choose to be by ourself. Loneliness is something quite different.
It's not something that we can see; it's a feeling, and it's subjective.
It comes from a lack of companionship, a sense of neglect, feeling as though you don't belong.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) puts it simply: "Having a lower level of social contact than desired."
According to the AIHW, older Australians are at an increased risk of social isolation due to a number of environmental factors, primarily the loss of physical or mental capacity or the loss of friends and family members.
It estimates that about one in five (19 per cent) of us are socially isolated. The highest rates occur in the largest urban regions and in sparsely populated states and territories.
Margaret: "Groups are fine for some people...thankfully I don't need them."
But what about Al and Margaret's natural social needs?
Humans are social animals and we need to belong. By forming meaningful relationships, we can stave off many major and costly health issues including depression, anxiety and possibly the onset of dementia.
"Loneliness increases the risk of dementia by more than 40 per cent for older people," Dr Neves said.
Queensland University's Professor Alex Haslam argues that we all need groups in our lives, but there is one very important component to groups that can make them work for you, and that is meaningfulness.
"The critical thing that gets people out of loneliness, or drives them into it, is loss or gaining valued group memberships," he said.
Just spending time around other people isn't necessarily the answer. If the people you are with aren't valued by you, it can make things worse.
"The critical thing is being a member of meaningful groups.
"It's not just about not having anyone to talk to; it's about not being part of these groups that take you out of yourself or individuality."
Let's face it, how often does some bright spark suggest you join this group or that group while not fully understanding what type of connection you really need?
So, being forced into a group isn't necessarily the answer for you.
You need to achieve a sense of being connected to that group and that means finding people who think the way you do.
"The key message is that you should join groups, not which groups should you join," Professor Haslam said.
"Any group is good for you as soon as you can identify with it and it works for you.
"It's the meaningfulness of the group that matters, not the nature of the group," he added.
Ted: "You can choose to be lonely or not lonely. That said, you can be lonely in a relationship too. If I was to be lonely, I would rather be lonely on my own than in a bad relationship."
It's the quality of relationships that is important as well.
You need to surround yourself with people who mean something to you. That might be many or just one or two, but the critical choice is ensuring they complement you and allow you to be who you are.
The first step is to realise loneliness is not your fault Dr Neves says. "It's a social issue, not just an individual issue."
Chari: When my husband passed away eight years ago, my life went from being super hectic to nothing doing.
I learned how to keep myself busy by volunteering, watching movies, joining several groups of friends for regular lunch outings, and most importantly, I learned to do things on my own and enjoy it rather than wait for someone to do things with me. I still do feel lonely sometimes but that's OK."
Secondly, you need to determine who you want to spend time with. "Trying to go around negative behaviours and being more open to quality time with others is crucial," Dr Neves said.
Her next tip is to find out what social activities are happening in your neighbourhood or retirement community, and that interest you. "It's where you can meet people with similar interests," she said.
Pat: Best thing ever when I joined a VIEW Club.
You can also look at where you can share your experience and knowledge within a volunteer role.
"Volunteering and helping others can help with our own feelings and can help us see the value in ourselves," Professor Haslam said.
"Everyone has a role to play in helping to address loneliness. In our research we have found that helping other people is one of the best ways to stave it off yourself."
He says viewing your neighbour as someone who you can share common group membership or a sense of identity with, consequently developing "us-ness'', is a valuable "way to interact with them and the way you perceive them and the expectations you have around them".
"Beyond joining a group, you can also look at the relationships you have and see how you can make them better for you," Dr Neve says. "And be open to new relationships."
Another idea from Beyond Blue is pets, particularly dogs, who provide constant companionship and unconditional love, and need to be kept active.
They give you a purpose of getting you out of your home even when you're feeling down, forcing you to be more active and opening opportunities for you to connect with others in your community.
If you are still feeling lonely, then Dr Neves recommends you talk to a social worker or your GP.
The Royal College of General Practitioners reports in its 2019 General Practice: Health of the Nation that psychological issues such as depression, mood disorders and anxiety "again appear as the most common health issue managed by GPs".
In the UK, GPs are being encouraged to connect these patients with relevant social services. "Its impact is a bit mixed precisely because you are often imposing solutions or groups on people and doing that in a not very structured way," Professor Haslam said.
On a recent episode of the ABC show The Drum, former AMA president Kerryn Phelps explained the challenges around this type of health support approach as GPs are often only able to allocate 20 minutes for a consultation.
"I think there is an artificial divide between psychological and physical illness," she said.
"The two almost always coexist. Somebody might present with trouble sleeping or a headache or some other somatic condition or physical symptom, whereas the underlying or coexisting condition is one of anxiety or depression or difficulty with life circumstances. And, of course, the GP is the first point of call and should be for someone suffering from any kind of health condition."
The burden lies with the GP who Dr Phelps says would find it almost impossible to provide sufficient support to a patient within a 20-minute consultation, especially when a patient does not express their psychological issue until the last minutes of an appointment.
In Australia, University of Queensland's Associate Professor Genevieve Dingle is leading The Ways to Wellness Social Isolation Project research team which is testing this social prescribing concept, where patients are referred to a link worker and on to non-medical group programs in the community.
Professor Dingle's team are examining the effects of this social prescribing project with a view to developing a model that can be implemented across Australia.
Tackling the conversation head-on
Talking to others about being lonely is hard. Often those that matter most to you will divert the conversation away from what you are trying to voice rather than listen to what you have to say.
If this keeps happening, there are free phone services you can contact so your concerns can be heard.
"Although we are talking about strategies that people can take at the individual level, it is important to think about our social responsibility," Dr Neves said.
"One thing that is extremely important is more initiatives to destigmatise loneliness and deconstruct the idea that loneliness is associated with a personal weakness."
One organisation that trying to take the issue of loneliness head on is The Australian Coalition to End Loneliness. It is aiming to raise awareness of the issue, and address loneliness and physical social isolation through evidence-based interventions and advocacy.
If any part of this story raises concerns, phone Lifeline 131114, Beyond Blue 1300224636 or Red Cross Telecross, 1300885698.