To Fight Loneliness, Let's Get Innovative

young college student lives in senior center CROP. Great Big Story/YouTube

There's a unique program at Judson Manor, a retirement community in Cleveland, Ohio, where several college graduate students live amid the senior residents. Room and board for the students is free, and in exchange, they perform concerts and recitals.

The relationship seems to be a successful one. In addition to the complimentary accommodations for the students, they also share art lessons and often eat together. Along with friendship and companionship, they might share tips on everything from relationships to technology. For the seniors, especially, it's turned out to be a way to fight loneliness.

And research has found that loneliness is a big deal. More than three in five Americans consider themselves lonely, according to a new report from health insurer Cigna. Workplace trends — including telecommuting and use of technology — contribute to feelings of isolation, says the report.

The report surveyed 10,400 adult workers and found that men were lonelier than women and younger people were lonelier than older people. Those with good co-worker relationships, those who reported good work-life balance and those who didn't work remotely also were less likely to report feelings of isolation.

According to the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation could be a greater threat to public health than obesity.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in a statement. "Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly."

More than one-third of adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s Loneliness Study. Being lonely, according to the study, often goes hand in hand with poor health. Those who rated their health as "excellent" were over half as likely (55% versus 25%) to be lonely than those who rated their health as "poor."

In two meta-analyses, researchers found that loneliness can increase the risk of early death.

"With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic,' " said Holt-Lunstad. "The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."

Looking for solutions

Researchers are investigating a medical way to combat the epidemic with a "loneliness pill." They're investigating whether the hormone pregnenolone might reduce the fear that keeps lonely people from connecting with others and cause them to keep withdrawing.

“A lonely mind lies to you all the time,” lead researcher and neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo told Smithsonian. “It’s like when you’re driving in the winter and the visibility is really bad. The idea is that a pill could defrost the windshield for you, and finally you see things as they are, rather than being afraid of everyone. You become more open to listening to others.”

Meanwhile, some individuals are creating their own less-scientific solutions to combat loneliness. In London, 27-year-old student Alexandra Knox moved in with 95-year-old widow Florence Smith, reports the Daily Mail. Knox pays $277 a month to room with the Royal Air Force veteran.

Smith signed up with a roommate-matching service to avoid feeling lonely. They share chores, watch TV together and sometimes share takeout meals.

"I have told my friends about it, and some of them think it's a bit strange ... But the more they find out about it, the more they think it's a very good idea," Smith told the Daily Mail.

"Sharing your home is a marvelous idea. Loneliness is horrible. You can get bored to tears being by yourself."

This is just one part of a greater push to solve the problem in the U.K..

Then-Prime Minister Teresa May created the first "minister for loneliness" and in October launched the government's first loneliness strategy. Loneliness is believed to affect 9 million people in the U.K.

Under the plan, general practitioners will be able to refer patients suffering from loneliness to community activities and voluntary services by 2023. May's strategy also focuses on how loneliness can be addressed in different sectors:

  • Adding loneliness to ministerial portfolios at the Ministry for Housing, Community and Local Government, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Transport. This is in addition to the Department for Health and Social Care and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
  • Embedding loneliness into relationship education classes so children in primary and secondary schools can learn about loneliness and the value of social relationships. Loneliness will feature in the Department for Education’s resources for teaching from September 2020.
  • Pilot projects to support flexible and inclusive volunteering for people such as those with long-term health conditions, which will be rolled out in up to five pilot areas in England.
  • Meeting with tech companies to discuss loneliness.

"Loneliness is a reality for too many people in our society today... it can affect anyone of any age and background," said May in the press release. "This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far reaching social change in our country - but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes."