Loneliness is generally defined as, “…an emotional state in which a person experiences a powerful feeling of emptiness and isolation.” Loneliness is thus, a state where a person feels isolated, abandoned, rejected and neglected by the near and dear ones or the society.
Such a state can occur either because of objective situation of social isolation or due to subjective experience of isolation. Often the subjective experience may or may not be directly related to the objective situation. Studies show that solitude is not necessarily accompanied by loneliness. Though lonely people often report having fewer social contacts than the non-lonely, many cases of people enjoying solitude have also been reported. In fact, artists and writers are very often found to resort to self-induced isolation for the sake of creativity.
Who is Lonely?
While adolescents and adults often report feeling lonely, it is the older people who are more often found to be affected by chronic loneliness. This invariably relates to their feeling of social isolation, which is a measure of social connectedness. Periodic or short- term loneliness occurring in adolescents and young adults because of break in relationships, change of school or failure in examination, is often overcome with new social contacts and success in life. Chronic or severe loneliness affecting older people has more serious consequences. Generally married people are reported to be less lonely than unmarried people. It is the newly divorced and widowed who are at high risk. People in the lower socio-economic group are more often afflicted by it, mainly because they hardly find time to form meaningful social relations. Conflicting evidence has been obtained about the effect of loneliness on gender. While women are more vocal about their experience of loneliness, men generally consider it a negative trait and hence are reluctant in admitting it.
Did You Know?
- In 1987, 8.5 million elderly lived alone; by 2020, 13.3 million elderly will live alone.
- More than 6.5 million, or 77%, of all elderly living alone are women. The percentage of older women living alone exceeds that of men in each age group, but women become progressively more likely than men to live alone with age.
- Among those over 85. 52% of women live alone compared to 29% for men. Widowhood is by far the most common situation for older women who live alone.
- Between the ages of 65 and 74, 77% of women living alone are widows, as are 88% of those over 75.
- Men who live alone are far more likely to be divorced or never to have married. This phenomenon occurs because women tend to marry men older than themselves, and because women live longer than men.
Causes of Loneliness
- A Drastic Change
The most immediate cause of loneliness is an event that has produced a drastic change in a person’s life situation. For an adolescent, this could be moving to a new school or community, being physically separated from a loved one or parental rejection. The authoritarian style of parenting, which demands compliance and at the same time does not encourage close interaction, results in children who become loners. There is a feeling of inadequacy that is detrimental to the development of close ties with others. Later in life such children are also not able to develop any sense of belongingness to the community, which at times results in antisocial behaviour.
- Old Age and Retirement
Common precipitating factors of loneliness in old age include, retirement from a very active work-life, death of a spouse with little communication with children, failing health and limited opportunity for satisfying social relationships. It is generally found that those who have a tendency towards loneliness during earlier part of life, get lonelier after retirement. Studies show that quite a large percentage of people die during the first two years of retirement. One of the reasons is psychological trauma, a sense of loss of friends, loss of prestige and feeling of uselessness.
- Personality charateristics
Apart from situational factors, there are several personal characteristics also which increase the risk of loneliness. These include shyness and introversion, low self-esteem and inadequate social skills. Studies, however, have shown that introvert people are happier when left alone. But, later in life such people find themselves in total isolation, mainly because they have shunned from people in their earlier years.
- Loneliness can be genetic
Loneliness might be a family trait. That's the conclusion of new research suggesting 48 percent of the variations in loneliness among people is a result of genetics. See Research Suggests Loneliness Is Genetic
Symptoms of Loneliness
When adolescents and young adults display significant negative changes in their behaviour, like, sleeping most of the time, loss of appetite, irritability, crying at little pretext, sulking or refusing to socialise, it usually signifies their state of loneliness. Sleeplessness or insomnia, loss of concentration, depression, delusions, are some of the other symptoms visible in older people who feel isolated and abandoned.
Depressing and negative thoughts keep recurring, which at times give way to suicidal tendencies. The person may start having delusions, hearing voices of people who are dead, or at times even seeing things and people who do not exist. Therefore sometimes these people are found having lengthy conversation with people whom they imagine to be present with them. This is probably an unconscious attempt to escape the depressing effects of loneliness.
Feeling of loneliness is often accompanied by certain physiological changes, like, heavy sweating, increased pulse beat, high blood pressure, weakness in the legs etc. Many psychosomatic diseases, like, asthma and eczema are also significant symptoms of loneliness.
Effects of Loneliness
Philip Zimbardo writes in ‘Psychology Today’, “ There is no more destructive influence on physical and mental health than the isolation of you from me and us from them.”
Chronic loneliness creates mental stress, which has been linked to a number of health problems, like, cardiovascular disease, increased blood pressure, poor sleep quality, risk of cancer in the old people.
A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago on 823 senior citizens and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (February 2007) found a strong link between loneliness and Alzheimer’s. What was more significant about the finding was that, the people who perceived themselves as lonely were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than people who were actually socially isolated.
How to prevent feeling Lonely?
With the changing family set-up, chances of old-age loneliness seem to have increased. Therefore, preventive measures need to be adopted from early childhood. Positive thinking and faith in ones abilities have to be inculcated in the children from the very beginning. Authoritarian style of parenting which is detrimental to the healthy growth of a child, should give way to the authoritative style of parenting, which encourages decision making and freedom of choice and at the same time helps to develop a disciplined and regulated lifestyle through regular interactions and encouragement.
A person with a positive attitude, who sees a glass as half full instead of half empty, can turn a situation of isolation into an opportunity of pursuing long-forgotten interest or hobby, which was not possible otherwise. Such optimism helps enjoyment of small pleasures in life and keeps away negativity.
Meeting people, getting involved in their problems and giving them a helping hand whenever possible, goes a long way in creating long-lasting relationships in life. Many a times such friends help solve loneliness problem in old age.
Keeping a pet, such as a dog or a cat, also helps prevent the feeling of loneliness. It is sometimes referred to as pet therapy. Like children, old people also get very attached to pets. They talk to them, play with them, show anger and yet get their love and devotion. These pets become lifelong companions of their masters, demanding very little in return. With pets around, such people never feel lonely in life.
A number of studies suggest that physical exercise helps to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and hostility. This is mainly because, exercise increases the transport of oxygen in the brain, which enhances cognitive ability and increases the general well-being and self-concept in people (Morgan and Goldston, 1987).
Walking is a good exercise for the aged, who cannot do intensive physical workouts. It has a positive effect on cardiovascular functioning, blood pressure and bone mass and also helps alleviate depression.
Building social support networks through joining clubs, community chaupals, attending prayer meetings or chatting on phone and internet also helps in fighting the feeling of loneliness.
Gardening has been found to be a great stress buster. Aged persons who are not able to involve themselves in much physical activity, may still be able to participate in this activity. Fresh air and sunshine stimulates the senses and colourful flowers, singing birds and rustle of leaves help to keep in touch with the real world. In fact, Alzheimer’s patients have been encouraged to take up gardening for health. It has been found to be a very good therapeutic treatment.
As seen earlier, there may be exogenous or external factors causing loneliness or there may be endogenous factors, that is, internal factors related to loneliness. Exogenous factors, like, family neglect or separation, break of relationship, death of spouse or moving away of friends, can be treated with the help of counselling. A trained Counsellor helps the patient in identifying the problem, understanding the issues related to it, helping in changing the error in thinking, acquiring a more positive attitude and utilising the time and energy in doing something they enjoy. Painting, gardening or any other activity of interest, helps in lifting the mood and cure loneliness.
In case of endogenous factors that relate to biological or hereditary causes, medical treatment is required, where administration of certain drugs become essential to normalize the biological functioning.
Writing therapy, which relates to giving vent to one’s feeling through the medium of writing, has been found to act as a catharsis in dealing with the feeling of rejection and abandonment caused by loneliness. Similarly, for people suffering from trauma or shock, facing the extreme experience through writing helps in calming down the effect. In fact it is not even necessary to share the written experiences with anyone. The mere fact that the feeling has been put in black and white has been found to help.
During the initial stages of loneliness, yoga, with its various breathing exercises and meditation, with concentration and relaxation techniques have been found helpful in alleviating depression and the feeling of loneliness. Fantasying or visualisation of pleasant imagery has also been found to have a therapeutic effect on people suffering from loneliness. As a defence mechanism it helps to deal with the negative situation by denying its presence and thus reducing stress. While being all the time locked in a world of fantasy is not a healthy thing, it probably provides a positive outlet to issues that cannot be resolved immediately.
Community can also help positively by involving young people, especially children, in spending some of their free time with the old people of their neighbourhood. Both the parties benefit through this, the children get enriched with the experiences shared by these people, at the same time, their bubbly talks and innocent pranks help the old people to get back their jest for life.
Adopting people through phone is a new programme started by an NGO in New Delhi. Finding most of the callers on their Senior Citizen Helpline in need of someone who would listen to their problems, the Foundation took the initiative of connecting them with their women volunteers. The volunteers, who were highly educated housewives, were themselves in need of doing something useful in life. Each of these volunteers were encouraged to adopt one senior women and have regular phone-chat with them. The distance relationship turned out beneficial for both the women. The old women found a chance to unburden themselves of their depressing thoughts. At the same time, the housewives felt they were doing something worthwhile, something they would have liked to do for their parents. It was like uniting with a far away family.
Art & Loneliness
The Arts have deep rooted connections in the most creative of all emotions, the loneliness. The Festivals and festivities, the world around, were instruments to counter loneliness, and yet they developed from the primordial emotion. The natives of the Desert and Snow covered regions are often the most colourful, perhaps to find a companion in their creativity.
- A fund of answers at Web Of Loneliness.
- Loneliness In Old Age Linked To Alzheimer's
- Breaking old-age loneliness with phone bonding
- Dealing with Loneliness
- The Pets for the Elderly Foundation
- Counselling Service
- Gardening as therapy
- Writing for therapy helps erase effects of trauma
- Hall Eric & Carol Hall (1988), "Human Relations in Education", Routeledge, London and New York
- Kuper Adam & Jessica Kuper, Ed. (1985) "The Social Science Encyclopedia", Routledge, London and New York