Loneliness and the Importance of Social Connections

social connections are important as people age

In 2nd grade, in Brownies, we sang a little song that went “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold.” As a child surrounded by friends and classmates, I didn’t give this much thought, but as an adult, the importance of friendship has become more apparent to me, both on a personal level and also through observations I’ve made in my practice. Studies have shown that 25% of people feel lonely on a regular basis, and the frequency and impact increase with age. That is 1 in 4 of us. Look around at the people surrounding you right now and realize how commonplace that is. Loneliness doesn’t discriminate, and it can be found among people who are successful, smart, young, old, and across all income and class levels.

I first experienced notable loneliness as a new mom. At the time I was running my own practice and had just gotten remarried. My network of friends was working women. I didn’t know any stay-at-home moms or first-time moms. Despite being a successful physician, I felt completely out of my element, because I was in charge of this tiny life. My son was born in January, and the cold snowy winter that surrounded us made me incredibly anxious about putting my baby in a car seat to go to the grocery store, or anywhere out in public, so I stayed home, alone.

When I returned to work, the loneliness and feeling of isolation continued.  I was the boss and the only physician in my practice. I had no colleagues to talk with at the office. Work became something I needed to complete as quickly as possible so I could rush home to my second full-time job of being a parent. Between working full-time in the office and parenting full-time at home, I had no time to for the work of socializing and getting out to make new friends, especially friends in a similar stage of life who could understand what I was going through. I had no support network.

When my son was 18 months old, we moved to a new home in a new neighborhood. A neighbor, Jean, often called and asked me to run around Washington Park with her and I always had an excuse. I didn’t want to be embarrassed if I couldn’t keep up with her. After a therapy session searching for why I was so unhappy I called Jean and said yes to a run. We since have become close friends over the years sharing happiness and sadness all through our run/walks around Washington Park. I finally realized it wasn’t about the exercise. It was about the social connection. I am extremely thankful for Jean’s persistence in continuing to invite me out to be social, and encouraging.

Jean’s example is a key to helping reduce the loneliness in our lives. Not everyone remembers how to make friends. Think about kids on a playground. They rush joyfully over to someone and say “ Do you want to play?” or “Can I play with you?” Usually, the answer is yes. At times if the answer was no the child moved on to another with no sense of embarrassment or rejection. I often share this with my patients and encourage them to reach out in the same way. Being vulnerable allows us to be open to new connections.

In addition to being vulnerable, there are many ways you can take risks and connect with people.

  1. Take a break from your phone, and look up. There is a whole world around you.
  2. Smile at strangers – either one your commute, while in a waiting room, or while passing in a store.
  3. Say hello as you pass someone while walking.
  4. Start a conversation with someone while you both wait in line. It doesn’t have to be serious – there’s always talking about the weather!
  5. Acknowledge service providers, grocery clerks, waitstaff, and more. Look at their nametag and call them by name.
  6. On a service call-introduce yourself, remember the person’s name and thank them at the end of the call. Smile while talking – it turns a chore into a moment of connection.

All of the above momentary connections make us and others feel SEEN. We are not alone. We are all part of a community.

Small moments help us work on developing longer connections:

  1. Invite a coworker to go for a walk with you over lunch this week. Set an appointment so you both know it’s a priority.
  2. Read through your local community newspaper, and circle gatherings/groups that seem interesting, and attend a few times. You might not like it, but it’s a great chance to get out. (I joined a local folk singing group. No experience required. I went a few times and realized it wasn’t for me so now I know that.)
  3. Say yes to an event a friend asks you to attend. It’s easy to be “too busy” or to wait and see if you “feel like it” – but instead, prioritize saying yes and help yourself feel “up for it” and have something to look forward to.
  4. Try a free class! Many communities have adult learning programs. Sign up for workshops or seminars. Over the years, I have tried a cooking class, meditation class, ballroom dance classes, and more.
  5. Join a neighborhood app like Next Door and attend an event that seems interesting. My husband and I joined a baby boomer dinner group that met 1x/month at different restaurants and met many people that way.

Social connections are important for health and agingReaching out can feel intimidating, but you are not alone – remember the 1 in 4 statistic from earlier? Take a chance, reach out, and connect! Ask someone “Would you like to be my friend?” Take a risk! People will respond in their own way (see my earlier hesitations with my dear friend Jean) but you will find that people do want to connect.

You would think I would be an expert at making new connections, and that I should just take my own advice. This is easier said than done. Last fall I lost two of my teammates to other jobs. They were the ones I reached out to on my down days, and their connections lifted my spirits. Without them, I felt all alone even though I worked in a building filled with people.  I didn’t manage my sadness too well.  I got angry (an all too common reaction to hide fear and sadness). After a straightforward and gentle talk with my clinical manager, I realized how lonely I was. I since have taken my advice with and reached out to numerous people. The response has been heartwarming and soul lifting. I am not alone. I am loved. I am a part of a community.

 

by Dr. Margie Eagan