'All the lonely people' includes many of us
July 1, 2023 | View PDF
"Ah, look at all the lonely people." -The Beatles
You hear him talk or you read his words and you think, "Now, this guy's a real mensch." It's all the more amazing considering that Dr. Vivek Murthy has served as the 19th and 21st surgeon general of the United States under Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden. That's right, a high-level bureaucrat and a good soul.
Dr. Murthy just released a ground-breaking study entitled, "Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation." Just plug that title into your favorite search engine and it will pop right up. It's very interesting, pertinent, and written in an easy-to-understand style.
In addition, Dr. Murthy has a podcast I highly recommend called "House Calls." You can listen to his thoughtful discussions about medical and public health issues while you clean up the kitchen, take a walk, or do your exercises. On May 2 of this year his discussion was entitled, "You're Not Alone in Feeling Lonely," which, not coincidentally, is one of the main points of his study. Dr. Murthy emphasizes that "around half of people in the United States have reported experiencing loneliness." And it's a very destructive condition. Dr. Murthy reports in his podcast:
"This week, I released a new Surgeon General's Advisory on our country's epidemic of loneliness and isolation. This is the first time that a Surgeon General has issued an official publication on this topic. Now the reason I'm doing this is because loneliness and isolation are at the core of so many of the health issues that we're facing as a country, and we truly are experiencing a crisis of disconnection. It turns out that people who struggle with loneliness and isolation are at increased risk of depression and anxiety. But they are also at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and of other physical conditions, including diabetes..."
Maybe you're thinking, "OK, so I spend a bit too much time being lonely, but what can I do about it?" Dr. Murthy has a lot of practical advice about what we can do. For example:
"We all need a toolbox of things that we can reach for that help us feel more connected, when we're feeling lonely, and we're all going to feel lonely from time to time. Again, there's no shame in feeling that. But whether it's reaching out to a friend for a minute or two, whether it's scheduling something that you can do with family or with friends down the line, or whether that's just spending a few minutes in solitude, listening to something that's inspiring, reading something that brings you comfort, and reconnecting with what matters to you, all of this can be helpful, and these are all tools I've reached for when it comes to addressing loneliness.
"...This is, for me, one of the great lessons of studying loneliness, has been recognizing that service is one of the most powerful antidotes that we have to loneliness. And that might seem, again, counterintuitive, because you might think, 'Hey, if I'm struggling with loneliness, don't other people need to help me?' And certainly it's the case that we need to be more comfortable asking for help... But it's also true that when we help other people, that helps us feel connected to them in that moment, but it also reminds us that we have value to bring to the world."
So, what resources do we have in Alaska? Tons of resources. For example, I recently chatted with Ashlyn Dye, volunteer coordinator and event scheduler (907-770-2032) at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center.
"Care Calls is a program we offer our members here at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center, where they would receive a phone call from one of our volunteers who have been trained and gone through screenings," she explained. "We emphasize with them confidentiality, that's a big thing... Our members would receive a phone call from one of our volunteers monthly, weekly, or daily sometime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., for someone to either check on them, or for a volunteer to chat with that person... Many of our seniors got used to staying at home alone and isolated from not only our community, but their families as well, during COVID-19. The Care Calls program is the first step before interacting and indulging again in real life, face-to-face relationships and activities."
There are senior centers all over Alaska. They all have in-person activities like socials, lunches, dances, classes, and discussion groups where you can meet people just like you. Be a volunteer. Hang out and play cards, chess or bingo. Say "Hi" to the folks around you. Many of the centers have programs you can be involved with via phone or zoom. Give a call to find out. You don't have to tolerate loneliness.
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.