HELP LINE: Loneliness is the silent killer of elders

To defeat loniliness, do something, anything, that interacts with other people.

IF YOU GOT a bunch of us together in a room — especially a bunch of us who are old enough to actually care about how Medicare works — and asked us what’s the scariest health issue we could imagine, most of us would say Alzheimer’s.

Sure, you’d probably hear a smattering of other things such as “stroke” or “heart attack” or a fall or anything that might result in a colonoscopy, but Alzheimer’s would probably fill the room.

That makes sense: We’ve heard a lot about it, and many of us have been around it, so we know how cruel and terrifying that disease really is.

And we know how it ends. We know what the collateral damage usually is.

It is, and rightfully so, terrifying.

But if we look at the numbers (don’t panic; I have no intention of burying us in statistics or the finer point of “double-blind” studies), do you know what will knock more of us over?

More loneliness than falls

Yes, “falls” are right up there, but here’s another one: loneliness.

Yep, good-old, down-home, you-don’t-need-a-medical-degree-to-understand-this loneliness.

In Britain, where there’s a lot of research going on about this very thing, they’re beginning to call it a “public health issue.”

In fact, as a predictor of early death (“early” meaning “sooner than you have to”), loneliness is more telling than obesity.

Think about that.

Why? Well, according to some neuroscientists at MIT, loneliness seems to be generated by the same region of the brain that is best known for its link to depression (and many of us are well aware of how lethal depression can be), but I’m not sure that really matters much to most of us.

Here’s what we know: Loneliness kills.

I’m periodically approached by groups of good, caring people who want to do something to help elders but they’re not sure what to do.

Often they’ve envisioned programs/efforts such as food/nutrition or transportation or home repair — and I routinely cheer them on.

Because there will never be enough resources like that.

But, if I’m pressed to identify what I think are the biggest problems, I’ll usually say, “Loneliness and isolation.”

I say that because I’ve seen it — over and over and over.

Our species just seems to be wired to be social, and that’s an interesting term, “social,” because most of us immediately see a picture of cocktail or dinner parties and polite, sophisticated chit-chat.

Others see pictures of study groups studying this or that and pretending to care.

Others see other pictures.

Many of us cringe because we are not, never have been and don’t have any intention of becoming social.

That’s not what I mean at all.

Interact with others

I mean “social” in the sense of actually interacting with another human being, however and wherever that might happen — and TV isn’t interactive.

Some of us are already saying things such as “I prefer to be alone,” “I’m not about to subject myself to the tyranny of the majority” or whatever else we might come up with, and I’ll concede that there are genetic anomalies among us who might experience life differently.

Heck, there are genetic anomalies among us who actually understand health insurance.

But for most of us, not so much.

Most of us just do better when we are “we.” No not necessarily 24/7, but on some fairly regular basis.

It’s just how we’re wired.

Remember those high-end neuroscientists? They’ve discovered that loneliness is an “aversive signal,” such as hunger, thirst or pain.

It’s our body’s way of saying that something is wrong here, so fix it. And with hunger, thirst or pain, we usually do.

But with loneliness? Often, we don’t fix it.

Why? Well, maybe because loneliness carries a negative connotation of weakness or an inability to stand on our own or dependence, and most of us aren’t real thrilled about any of those, so we just bear it. Barely.

True, there can be other things going on, such as terminal shyness, disabilities or lack of transportation.

So we rationalize or just stay put because that seems less scary (or overwhelming or humiliating) than listening to that aversive signal.

Less scary than fixing it.

This is where we’d all expect me to make a pitch for programs that could help (I am), or for individuals to take the time to actually visit or just talk to a lonely elder (I am), or for help from medical professionals with finding these folks (I am), but my real pitch here today is to those of us who do isolate. Who are lonely. Who are … alone.

We can do something

Most of the time, we could actually do something about this.

We could make it better.

We could begin to “fix it.”

How? Call somebody.

“I don’t know anybody.”

Yes, you do. Old friend? Long-lost relative? Neighbor? Pizza delivery guy?

“I wouldn’t know what to say.”

Who cares? Just say, “Hello! I was just thinking about you…” or whatever.

And don’t tell me that you can’t afford the phone bill because what you can’t afford to do is rot.

Better yet, go somewhere.


Who cares?

Go to the mall, to church, to a museum, to a video-gaming place — anywhere!

“That doesn’t sound very good.”

I don’t care. Does watching the 89th rerun of “Little House on the Prairie” light you up?

Probably not, but here’s something I know: We have to do something, go somewhere, say something to somebody.

And have somebody say something back.

It’s a simple law of physics: An object in motion tends to stay in motion.

It doesn’t have to be the coolest thing or the coolest place or the coolest person we can possibly imagine.

It just has to be … something. And it has to be someone, and pretty soon, we’ll begin to see what (and who) we like.

Or we can just sit at home, staring at that box that yells at us all the time, wondering what happened.

We know what happened. That’s the wrong question.

The real question is: What happens next?


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing

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