Antidotes to Loneliness
Making human connections may be easier than you think.
About 50 years ago, a young man with extraordinary emotional intelligence wrote a song about how it felt to be old and forgotten. “Hello in There” by John Prine is still a perfect evocation of loneliness in old age.
None of us wants to end up like the aging couple in the song, isolated and alone in a world that has passed them by. But loneliness and isolation continue to be a plague on older adults. This is especially true of “solo agers,” those who live without a partner and/or without close ties to family members.
If you know with perfect certainty that your best friends and your partner will outlive you, you’ll always live where you live today, and your health will never limit your activities, then you need not read further. You’ve obviously got this all figured out. I will note, however, that the statistics are not in your favor. Today 28% of older Americans live alone. Among them are the 20% of Baby Boomers who never had children – double the rate of previous generations. While longevity may be a blessing, it also carries the curse of outliving many people who mean the most to us.
Now for the good news: new social arrangements, new technologies, and new institutions are springing up to help older Americans cope productively with the negative aspects of living alone. Here is a roundup of what may be on your horizon.
Your Robotic Companion: Alexa and Siri are simple amoeba compared to the next generation of online sidekicks. Take ElliQ (pronounced Ellie Cue), a device now on the market that promises endless companionship and entertainment. Programmed to your individual personality and preferences, it promises to engage in small talk, exchange jokes and trivia, remind you of errands or medications, and encourage you to exercise mind and body. It can book Uber rides and set up video calls with friends and family. Early reviews are positive. I predict the next generation will add verisimilitude to conversations by talking with their hands.
Make a Young Friend: Another antidote to loneliness is making conversation with a new friend. Several programs are promoting intergenerational connections by matching older adults with younger people, usually through video chat. Big & Mini uses algorithms to match older adults with 18-to-25-year olds, Eldera pairs adult mentors with children from 22 countries, while SageConnect pairs LGBTQ adults with younger volunteers.
Sharing Stories: The Life Story Club, a New York-based nonprofit, takes a proactive stance against loneliness by creating small social clubs where older adults can build friendships and share their life stories. During Covid the group pivoted from live meetups to virtual meetings and made special efforts to remove technology barriers for low-income adults. The group has both English and Spanish clubs.
Sharing Your Home: Many cities have services to match older adult homeowners who don’t want to live alone with younger roommates who need an affordable rental. With the right chemistry, the pairing can benefit both parties.
Choose Your Best Community: Moving to a community for older adults guarantees that you’ll be surrounded by others who share at least one thing in common – advanced years. But alternative models are starting to appear, including intergenerational communities and senior housing integrated into multigenerational neighborhoods.
Good News for Introverts
Most of the standard advice about avoiding loneliness advocates more socializing with more people – join clubs, sign up for a choral group, go square dancing – none of which appeals to introverts. But not to worry: When you drill down, the best cure for loneliness is just simple moments of one-to-one human connection. They can be with loved ones or strangers, in person or long distance.
Here are four simple, research-based suggestions for making connections that even introverts may find comfortable.
1. Have a heart-to-heart. Listen to someone open up and be vulnerable about something personal, and in return communicate your understanding, your acceptance, and your caring. Allow yourself to feel emotional intimacy.
2. Give and receive help. Instrumental support is tangible help that resolves a problem, such as delivering groceries to someone who’s ill. Emotional support is nurturing another’s feelings, like giving a timely hug.
3. Share positive vibes – experiencing positive emotions together is another form of connection. When people sing and dance or even laugh together, their bodies and minds synchronize and connect.
4. Express affection and gratitude. Even brief moments when you tell others you appreciate them, like them, or love them can be powerful bonding experiences.
See? Is that so hard?
Start shoring up your social capital now, so you never find yourself waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there.”