Every Christmas a couple of dear friends throw a party for my wife and me and, the more the merrier, invite another 400 of their other pals. It's a wonderful time in their big old (approaching the century mark) fine house, 9,000 square feet over three floors including a finished basement, just down the street from the Governor's Mansion. Everybody knows everybody, or soon will; everybody likes everybody else, or pretends to.
It's an exchange of political gossip (and business cards) and season's greetings, news about the kids and the grands, vacations contemplated or just concluded, the customary blend of business and pleasure, the latter prevailing.
Normally we hang out for three or so hours, relishing the repartee and the trio of tables laden with, in textbook understatement, heavy hors d'oeuvres. There's some grape juice, too, and nectar of hops. This year, however, we and another couple snuck out a little early to keep a long-standing dinner date. And had as fine a time as could be hoped for, a smaller version of the soiree where we'd begun the evening. It's all about friends, isn't it? Yes, we agreed. Family and friends. The ultimate blessing. So the first thing that caught my eye the following morning, in the ritual first scan of Internet news sites, was this headline: “How Social Isolation is Killing Us.” A physician who cares for patients in the final weeks of their lives chose this season (and, really, what better time?) to write of the invisible peril that afflicts countless Americans: loneliness. Except it's not truly invisible nor countless: a lonely person looks lonely, acts lonely; and one of every three Americans now lives alone, as do half those aged 85 or older — sometimes by choice, more often, not.
The damage wrought by social isolation — loneliness, or should it be called “aloneness”? — is clinically quantifiable as well. Mountains of fresh research, reports Dr. Dhruv Khullar in The New York Times, tell us that men and women with limited human interaction suffer insufficient sleep, damaged immune systems, elevated stress and are more prone to painful inflammations. The isolated are almost 30 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack and are at even greater liability to stroke, and their premature death rate is twice that of their more engaged peers.
“All told,” Dr. Khullar concludes, “loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.” By now you are probably thinking of the neighbor a few doors down who isn't really a neighbor because he or she keeps to him- or herself. Or the elderly aunt, widowed, in remote Oregon; and perhaps the long-retired colleague, his wife in a nursing home, lost to him in the ozone of
Alzheimer's, their children scattered across the nation, unable to come home frequently. Understandable, but — The loneliness problem, studies demonstrate, is not solely a torment of the aged — nor are its consequences. Socially isolated children — friendless kids, the youngsters who for whatever reason don't “fit” - “have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors,” the doctor says. A lonely child can become a lonely adult, assuming he or she reaches adulthood without suffering the dangers that await those who find companionship among other outsiders, not always savory; or who seek solace in controlled substances. Intervention, public and private, is essential.
About that un-neighborly neighbor: Khullar advises that the stigma attaching to loneliness can perpetuate.
“Admitting we're lonely can feel as if we're admitting we've failed in life's most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment.” And that faraway relative: does anyone living near her reach out? Can they help her become active in a church, a bridge club, a cooking class? The pensioner, his spouse and their children denied him by disease and distance, his companions from his working years dying or themselves isolated — cannot those still within his former circle return him to it in some way, take advantage of his life experience? Now: one might image that in a cyber-age, with Facebook and Twitter and all other manner of “social media,” not to mention the telephone, that loneliness is strictly optional. Wrong, says Khullar: “A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart…Research confirms our deepest intuition: human contact lies at the heart of human well-being.”
Loneliness, social isolation — an intensely private agony with profound public consequences, in the cost of health care, especially.
So what are we waiting for? Every season 'tis.
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