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Loneliness, Depression and Sociability in Seniors

All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?

There have been very few times in my adult life when I really needed to cry. The one time that stands out for me I was stationed in Vietnam with the First Infantry Division. You might think that there is a lot to be emotionally distressed about when serving in a war zone and you would be right. However, I wasn’t crying because I was afraid, I was crying because I felt incredibly alone. I was far from home, living with a bunch of men I hardly knew, and I was not sure if I was going to make it back. I thought about my family and friends and how much I missed them. These thoughts all came together to create an overwhelming sense of loneliness. 

Even now, 50 years later, I find myself sometimes being lonely. My wife and I have no children, and my wife is frequently away from home traveling on business. I can spend days in the house alone with my two dogs; reading, writing, surfing the net, gardening, and watching TV. Having been an academic, I’m used to spending a great deal of time reading books and journals. A very solitary endeavor.

To my advantage I don’t require a lot of social activity. I enjoy my own company and easily find ways to entertain myself. But the truth is, even a recluse needs some human interaction, which is why I’m always happy when my wife, who is very sociable, comes home. My biggest problem when it comes to feeling lonely is that I’m not very sociable. Sociability is important if we want to ward off loneliness. A lack of sociability can even affect our mortality, if it leads us toward depression.

Loneliness

Loneliness can be defined by two factors: one is our desired level of social interaction versus two, our actual level of social interaction. If you desire more social interaction than you have, you are at a greater risk of feeling lonely. The research on loneliness seems to be broadly divided into three areas: childhood and adolescence, early adulthood, and senior populations. In the younger groups, the variables that tend to get looked at are personality traits, social skills, and cognitive processes. For seniors, there tends to be more focus on longevity issues such as health, income levels, transportation, and social power.

Social power seems like a candidate for a lot of loneliness issues if we assume that being in ill health and not having transportation to visit others, which may result from reduced income, can cause us to lose control over our ability to interact with our social network. Regardless of the reasons, it is not a good thing to be lonely. Just the emotional experience of it is negative, but also, and perhaps most importantly, it can lead to depression.

Loneliness and Depression

When I was studying psychology at UCLA back in the 1970s, I recall hearing a professor refer to depression as the common cold of psychology. By that he meant that we all get sad or down or even depressed at various times in our lives, but things change, and we recover and move on. As we age, we may have bouts of depression that are more difficult to recover from. This is especially true when we experience a sense of loneliness.

There is a mountain of research on the relationship between the cognitive states of loneliness and depression. Some of these studies seem to have conflicting results. The one thing that is consistent in these findings though is that loneliness and depression are highly correlated , especially in older adults. That is to say, if you are experiencing loneliness you are much more likely to experience depression. I believe, however, that even though there is a strong correlation between loneliness, aging, and depression, this does not mean that as we age, we will automatically get depressed.

So, what counteracts loneliness? Certainly, one important way to ward off loneliness, and the resulting potential for depression, is that thing I rely on my wife for: being more sociable.

Sociability

The American Psychological Association defines sociability as: “Sociability is the need or tendency to seek out companions, friends and social relationships.” As we age it becomes more difficult to maintain our social connections. We may lose our spouse; our children may move away; and we will lose friends due to the normal rate of mortality for our age group. One certain way to ward off loneliness in the wake of these circumstances is to work at being more social. Sociability is important in seniors because it can help keep us from feeling lonely. If we have a fulfilling social life, we are much less likely to feel lonely, and hence depressed.

Improving Social Interaction

So how do we maintain our social network when we can’t drop by to visit our family and friends? How can we enhance and maintain our already existing social structure?

First, the answer is to actually be sociable. Yes, I know that can be difficult if you’re a bit reclusive like me or even if you want to develop and maintain new friendships but feel awkward trying. The thing is, you need to make an effort to stay in touch with the family and friends you already have. Invite them over. Host a game night. Establish weekly or monthly get togethers, so being together becomes routine and you have something to look forward to. I have found that it’s better to have an occasion in the calendar, and then move it if something gets in the way, than to schedule nothing.

To increase your sociability, you may also need to make an effort to meet new people. Where do the older people in your community meet? Is there a senior center nearby?  Where do the locals play bridge? There are groups for everything. Find the people who are interested in what interests you. I joined a gardening club and became a Master Gardener.

Second, you have to find a method that will allow you to achieve your social goals. This becomes more difficult as we age. We may not have transportation to actually go visit friends, or we may be dealing with health challenges that keep us from getting out at all. We may even be self-quarantining in the face of a pandemic.

I don’t think there is a perfect substitute for shaking hands, hugging, or kissing family and friends, but if it is just not possible to be with them physically, then technology can help.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article described a series of social apps that can help us stay in touch with family, friends, and colleagues. Among the apps discussed, I think two have the greatest potential for helping us stay in touch with our social networks. The first one is FaceTime.

The trusted FaceTime app, available for all Apple devices, connects you to friends and relatives from all over the world, and it couldn’t be easier to use. Once downloaded, your contact list will show you who’s already using the app, and from there the route to a smiley, live face-to-face conversation is very short. Marco Polo, available also on Android, offers the same mood-boosting closeness, but on your own terms; short video messages can be recorded, decorated with funny backgrounds and effects, and sent to anyone who needs some love.

Here is a link to a You Tube video for beginners on how to use FaceTime.

The second app which I have just recently begun to use is Zoom. Zoom is especially good for communicating with more than one person at a time. You can see dozens of people at a time on your computer screen and they can see you and talk at the same time. My wife and I recently hosted a virtual baby shower using Zoom with about twenty people online talking and playing games. Zoom can be a valuable tool for staying in touch with friends and family, and a basic subscription is free.

The star of the COVID-19 crisis, Zoom is a conferencing app that’s intuitive, easy to join and allows participants to share their screen with the rest of the group. The Basic option limits your meeting to 40 minutes a session, and doesn’t allow recording, but you can “host” an endless amount for participants. While meeting, your friends and colleagues can secretly message each other in the Chat window (hello, gossip!) or chat with everyone at once. Currently popular with workout-class instructors, Zoom is also perfect for a collective dance party.

Here is a link to a You Tube video on how to use Zoom.

So, there it is. The two most important aspects of sociability are to want to be social and to have a method for being social if your social network is not readily available to you. Working toward greater sociability, and thereby fending off depression, can help us feel better and live longer.

  

EdLopez 300x300Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam.

 

Written by : Ed Lopez


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