By Don MacGillivray

In recent years, the concept of loneliness and social isolation has become an important issue that affects us all. It has always been with us, but its impact and health effects are not well known.

Generally speaking, life changes that result in loss are the major cause of loneliness and isolation. For senior citizens this can be the loss of a family member or a friend, the worsening of a medical condition, a change of residence, loss of income, or a reduction in their quality of life.

It is now clear that this psychological issue can become a serious health issue. It is one of the five “giant evils” as defined by the landmark 1942 Beveridge Report in Great Britain. These are the ever present social concerns of poverty, ignorance, misfortune, joblessness and disease.

Loneliness can affect a person at any stage of life, but young people and senior citizens are the most vulnerable.

One might think that modern society has improved to such an extent that this should not be a problem. Social media and the internet are ways to connect with others, but these do not provide the same sense of contact and feelings of closeness provided by an in-person encounter.

People have different reasons for being lonely. Some may not feel that anyone loves them, some may have a low self worth, and some may have medical or life problems that they can’t overcome.

These three questions can often be used to assess loneliness of an individual. How often do you feel that you lack companionship? How often do you feel left out? How often do you feel isolated from others?

Greater awareness of community programs available for older adults at senior centers, with local transportation options can increase one’s activities. However, if this is not adequate, one may need the assistance of social or health care organizations.

As they age, seniors tend to be separated from their families, leave the nest, and live independently and need to adjust their income and lifestyle appropriately.

Their social networks may get smaller and they need to create new relationships. Many have health issues that can reduce their mobility. Familiar ways of doing things change as technology and their community changes around them.

As life partners and friends pass away, similar relationships are almost impossible to replace. Most senior citizens will adjust to these changes fine, but anyone in any circumstances can have difficulties that can result in isolation, loneliness, and possibly depression. If financial, family, and social resources are not adequate, they are more likely to need assistance.

Loneliness is subjective and can be difficult to notice. It is, after all, a feeling that may be invisible or just episodic. Some lonely people make themselves known while others hide their feelings. Some stay away from public view and are unable or unwilling to address the issue themselves.

It is difficult to diagnose and treat loneliness appropriately. When extreme, it is serious and can be life-threatening.

The brain experiences the effect of loneliness in a similar way as it experiences pain. Those suffering  may have a shorter life expectancy and are more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. It can induce or exacerbate alcoholism, drug addiction, heart problems, mental disorders, which can lead to suicide. The risk of dementia is increased by 64 percent.

Loneliness is more than just feelings. The first step is accepting and understanding the problem in the given situation and then helping people connect to the community where they live.

A community development approach with staff support seems to have a major impact. Neighborhood action within resilient communities is also important.

Various governmental departments, local organizations such as schools, housing services, the justice system, and voluntary organizations can help to find and reduce social isolation for people of all ages.

Citizen action can be effective and relatively inexpensive, but there must be an organization with good facilitation and patience.

Community-led initiatives and neighborhood organizations led by senior citizens have been successful in helping to overcome social isolation. The well-being of an aging population lies with health professionals, dedicated charities, and a strong social community.

The United States is behind Great Britain in the study of loneliness and more research is needed before it will be addressed adequately.

In the United Kingdom enterprises, such as Good-gym provide many needed resources by creating beneficial relationships among community members. Good-gym is a community of runners that, while running, stop off and support isolated older people with social visits and helping them with the tasks they can’t do themselves.

Throughout England, Scotland and Ireland there are more than 300 Men’s Sheds – a community-based approach to bring older men together in a familiar environment where they can work on projects or just have a cup of tea with friends.

In Central London Open Age runs some 400 activities each such as sewing circles, news discussions, book clubs and exercise classes, held at church halls, sport centers, housing projects. Their employees visit people in their homes to encourage them to get them out and about.

Portland is rich in resources that can address the issue of loneliness. It is only necessary for people to reach out and connect.

Perhaps it is time for more people to help address the loneliness in the larger community by becoming more involved with the resources in Portland in ways that might help others.