We may be more connected via technology than ever before, but according to licensed clinical social worker Nancy Wohlrabe, we are also becoming increasingly lonely. Wohlrabe, who is owner and administrator of In-Home Counseling for Seniors, in the Chicago area, says she’s seen feelings of desolation and isolation rise in her clients since she began her career as a counselor in the 1980s.
“We’re moving to a society where we communicate in very short snippets. I’ll send you a Snapchat, I’ll like you on Facebook, I’ll Tweet you a little comment.” says Wohlrabe. “What we’re looking for is intimacy and connection and someone who knows us. And we can’t always get that through social media.”
Finding meaningful connections isn’t just necessary for mental health, says Wohlrabe, but also physical health. Researchers have found that loneliness can contribute to decline in mobility and even increase risk of death among older adults.
“I think loneliness is an epidemic,” says Wohlrabe. “I think it’s something society isn’t addressing.”
Wohlrabe shared the following advice on how to confront loneliness.
- Give yourself permission to feel lonely. “Feeling lonely is part of the human condition,” says Wohlrabe. “We are programmed genetically to want to be around others.” And yet, she adds, in our society, we value strength and independence and want to put that side of ourselves forward. Wohlrabe encourages clients to talk with others about feeling lonely, in order to de-stigmatize it.
- Show up. Accept invitations, try new things, be there for your friends and family. Don’t isolate on purpose. Don’t say preemptively, ‘That’s not my crowd.’ Give it a try. There’s a possibility you might connect with someone, says Wohlrabe. If you go somewhere and it’s not your cup of tea, she adds, don’t force yourself to stay. Just be open-minded and give it a try, whatever “it” is.
- Take care of yourself. Wohlrabe says that people who feel lonely may also feel apathetic, and neglect healthy habits, such as regular exercise, eating balanced meals and getting enough sleep. That, she says, can contribute to the cycle and make them feel even worse. She adds that certain health conditions could also impact the mood, and encourages people to go to the doctor when they don’t feel well. If someone is in pain, negative feelings may feel even worse, she says.
- Think about what drives you and do it. There’s no single cure-all for loneliness, says Wohlrabe. She asks her clients about the types of things that bring them joy. If they’re an extrovert, that could mean joining groups and clubs and participating in activities that are meaningful to them. If they’re introverted, it might mean caring for plants, adopting a pet or finding a fulfilling activity they can do on their own, like knitting blankets for a shelter. “I try to help my clients to see that their lives have purpose and meaning,” she says.
- Be kind to others. Wohlrabe reminds her clients to be pleasant to others, even if they’re not feeling their best. “A smile could be a drop in the pond that ripples very far away from you,” she says. You never know when you’ll brighten someone else’s day. And a stranger could respond, and brighten yours.
- If you need help, ask for it. Wohlrabe says that many older adults have experienced extensive loss, and that lack of connection results in a feeling of isolation. Therapy may be beneficial. “Counseling can be a tremendous help because it can allow a person to be heard. They can share their intimate feelings, doubts, concerns, fears and darkness with another person, separate from anyone else,” she says.
When she talks with her clients, Wohlrabe reminds them that loneliness is a feeling. Just as happiness, sadness and anger come and go, loneliness too can pass.
 “Loneliness in older persons: a predictor of functional decline and death,” Archives of Internal Medicine [See: Conclusion].