The U.S. Surgeon General recently issued an 82-page advisory about an epidemic that’s not talked about much—loneliness.
Approximately half the adults in this country report feeling lonely, and the phenomenon began before the COVID pandemic.
“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy said.
It makes sense that loneliness can lead to anxiety and depression, which is cited throughout the advisory. Yet, it also negatively impacts health in many other ways. A combination of data from 16 independent studies reveals that loneliness substantially increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia and more.
Researchers reached the bleak conclusion that a lack of social connection is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a 2017 study, Advancing Social Connection as a Public Health Priority in the United States, published by American Psychology. And it’s worse than consuming six alcoholic drinks daily.
In his advisory, Murthy called upon the public to build connections and relationships to help reduce loneliness and isolation. Although that might be relatively easy for some folks, it’s certainly more challenging for others. For example, how does an older person, who may be homebound because of a disability or isolated after losing a spouse, meet new acquaintances?
Anja Gibson, a Mill Valley preteen, aimed to answer that question for her Junior Girl Scout project. The project’s goal was to identify a problem in the community and find ways to address it. Because Gibson, 12, enjoys a close relationship with her “Nana,” she decided to help seniors.
Carol Brooklier, Gibson’s grandmother, and her neighbor, Sandra Otanez, live in the Rotary Valley Senior Village in San Rafael. Gibson sat down with the two women to ask about issues they face on a regular basis. Both agreed that everyone in their village feels loneliness and isolation to a degree, with some residents rarely leaving their cottages.
While Brooklier, 77, and Otanez, 85, live alone, the two friends are outgoing and enjoy socializing. They’re not necessarily isolated, but loneliness still creeps in.
“Mainly, I feel lonely in the evening,” Brooklier, who is a widow, said. “In the day, I go to the YMCA and take Hawaiian dance and strengthening classes, so I’m around people. Sometimes, when I’m driving, a song will come on the radio that my husband and I liked, and all of a sudden, I’ll get a sense of loneliness.”
Otanez, like Brooklier, spends time visiting with nearby family. And she joins the activities at the community center in her village, such as the recent Halloween party and the occasional happy hours.
“It is hard to be alone,” Otanez said. “But I have Mike, my cat, which certainly helps. I talk to him.”
Brooklier and Otanez are fortunate to have solid relationships to keep loneliness at bay most of the time. However, they expressed to Gibson their concerns for neighbors who stay isolated in their homes, only venturing out to retrieve the mail.
The summer meeting with the two women had a profound impact on Gibson, giving the Girl Scout project a new importance. She became determined to help her grandmother’s neighbors alleviate their loneliness.
“These are problems that won’t go away on their own,” Gibson said. “The main one was feeling isolated. A lot of people there are living alone and don’t have contact with their family members.”
After the meeting, Gibson began the research phase of her Girl Scout project. Some ideas seemed a bit complicated, such as establishing a cooking club, enabling neighbors to prepare and eat meals together. And perhaps the people most in need wouldn’t participate.
Then Gibson discovered Friendship Line, a free statewide service for people 60 and older and adults living with disabilities who want to have a conversation. The line is answered by extensively trained, compassionate volunteers and staff who listen and provide emotional support to callers.
“It’s not just a warm line,” Katy Spence, senior director of Friendship Line, said. “It’s also a crisis line, offering interventions for people feeling hopeless. We’re here 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Friendship Line, in existence for 50 years, receives an average of 7000 to 9000 calls a month. Call volume jumps 20% to 25% during the holiday season.
The holidays can be a difficult time, particularly for people with ambulatory issues who can’t travel to family gatherings. Others must contend with bittersweet memories of past celebrations with loved ones now gone. Winter’s shorter days offer less sunlight, which plays a role in feelings of loneliness and depression, according to Spence.
“Sometimes, we all need a friend,” Spence said. “That’s the basis of the Friendship Line. Our connection to others is what binds us to life.”
Friendship Line, Gibson knew, could provide her grandmother’s neighbors and others with a respite from loneliness. Now, she had to get the word out. She created and printed flyers with information about the service and ordered magnets with Friendship Line’s phone number.
Gibson delivered the information to her grandmother’s village, where the materials remain posted next to the mailboxes. Brooklier asks everyone to take a magnet, saying that even if they don’t need Friendship Line’s services, they should give it to someone who does.
Next, Gibson visited Varenna, a luxurious independent living community for seniors in Santa Rosa. At first blush, it might seem that residents of the upscale property, which offers numerous amenities, fitness classes and social activities, wouldn’t be interested in calling Friendship Line.
Yet, loneliness is still an issue.
“We have a pretty robust group here, but activities that we take for granted, like carrying in the groceries, become challenging as we get older,” Jenny Latourette, Varenna’s life enrichment director, said. “A big part of mental well-being is maintaining independence.”
Varenna staff was greatly appreciative when Gibson reached out with Friendship Line flyers and magnets. The info is prominently displayed in the activities room, which receives foot traffic all day.
“When residents are in crisis, it’s one of the first resources we give them,” Latourette said. “Money can’t buy happiness. It’s all about your optimistic outlook and meaningful connections with other people.”
Last month, Gibson earned the Bronze Award, the highest honor in Junior Girl Scouts, for her project that has helped lessen loneliness for seniors in Marin and Sonoma counties.
Inspired by Gibson, I set out to find a nonprofit that assists Napa County seniors, especially those who are homebound, in building relationships with people. Molly’s Angels fit the bill.
This remarkable organization provides folks, age 60 and older, with a variety of free services. The Hello Molly Care Calls program matches each senior with a volunteer who calls them once a week to help reduce feelings of loneliness.
“These calls are a friendly chat to see how they’re doing, but more importantly, a connection to the community and reassurance someone is there,” said Jill Jorgensen, program director at Molly’s Angels. “For some, the care calls are the only people they hear from. Beyond a phone call, the weekly chat provides a safety check-in by trained volunteers.”
The relationship between the senior and volunteer sometimes becomes more than a check-in. A 97-year-old woman with a wide repertoire of songs sings to her volunteer. Another senior and volunteer exchange vegetables from their gardens. Yet another pair regularly swaps books.
Friendship Line and Hello Molly Care Calls offer just what the U.S. surgeon general ordered—the power of social connection.
Give them a call.
Friendship Line may be reached at 888.670.1360 and Molly’s Angels of Napa Valley at 707.224.8971.