Lose Loneliness

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News November 2013

Social support has always been an important factor in the well-being of people with disabilities.

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In 1950, less than 10% of American households consisted of one person. By 2010, that rose to nearly 27%. One predictable result has been loneliness.

A recent AARP survey found 35% of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, up from 20% only a decade earlier. Another study labeled roughly 20% of Americans, about 60 million people, as unhappy because of loneliness. Two others pegged the number at 40%. That’s 120 million adults!

When we’re lonely, we lose impulse control, become less concerned with interactions and more concerned with self-preservation. This perpetuates the same behavior causing the problem.

Public Health Problem

As a society we’re more isolated. We have fewer people we confide in and provide us with social support.

Twenty-five years ago, the average person claimed roughly three close confidants. In 1985, 10% of Americans said they had no confidants; 15% said they had only one. By 2004, 25% had nobody to talk to and 20% had only one confidant.

Now we hire professionals to provide assistance in navigating the problems and circumstances of life, to be our confidants and protect us from loneliness. The fields of psychology, social work and counseling now account for more than 750,000 jobs. 

Loneliness has become a public health problem. Lonely people tend to go into geriatric care earlier, are more likely to be obese and less likely to exercise.

They’re at greater risk of inflammation and less likely to survive a serious surgery. Chances are also greater for depression, memory loss, poor sleep and dementia.

These numbers represent the overall population; it’s safe to assume the numbers are higher for people with disabilities.

Quality Friendships

Social support, specifically peer support, has always been an important factor in the well-being of people with disabilities.

We’re often more isolated and marginalized. The importance of social support increases significantly as people age and become less active, less social and more isolated.

The obvious question is how to maintain or increase social support? Attaining a level of social satisfaction doesn’t require a ton of friends; a few quality friendships provide us with people we can count on and who can count on us.

Intimacy and reciprocity matter far more than volume and actual physical contact (coffee, dinner or a movie), phone calls or other personal communication are key.

Establishing and maintaining social support is a skill that seems to come easier to women than men. That’s an area where men would be wise to observe the women in their lives.

Finding Support

For many, family constitutes the first layer of social support. These are people we’ve known most of our lives, who’ve witnessed our triumphs and tragedies and often know best how to support us.

Close friends are precious and valuable treasures. These friendships must be nurtured and fed rather than taken for granted. Mom was right; you only get out of it what you put into it.

Service organizations have long served as a vehicle for meeting people and building social capital. Local chapters of Paralyzed Veterans of America or National Spinal Cord Injury Association and spinal-cord injury (SCI) support groups have fostered many long-term friendships. At times SCI can be extremely demanding and I know I’d be lost without my chair brethren.

Others find social support through advocacy groups or political organizations. The dynamic is similar to SCI-specific groups in that people with similar goals are coming together and working toward a shared a goal.

Volunteer opportunities can also be a source of social support. Many people report getting more from volunteering than they give. Others draw support from various groups such as book, bridge or social clubs.

How You Use It

My groups have always been of the physical variety, revolving around outdoor pursuits such as running, biking, skiing, climbing and hiking.

Physical fitness remained a high priority for me after I sat down. I’ve been fortunate to establish a couple of close friendships with people I’ve met at fitness centers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Facebook and similar social media. The jury is out on just how much true social support can be gained here. Basically, it depends on how you use these networks.

People who use Facebook to communicate directly to others through “composed communication,” either privately or posting on the timeline, increased their social capital and experienced a decrease in loneliness.

If you’re simply scanning people’s pages to see what they’re up to, “passive consumption,” two things can happen: You feel worse about yourself because everyone else has such perfect lives, or you get motivated to do something about your life.

Perhaps by reaching out in the spirit of friendship.  


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