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From Solitude to Solidarity: A Guide to Connecting in Life's Final Moments

Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or consuming six alcoholic drinks, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Loneliness After Losing Someone

Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or consuming six alcoholic drinks, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.  

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy says he had a “lightbulb” moment about the loneliness crisis after conducting a cross-country listening tour. Over and over, he heard people talk about feeling "isolated, invisible, and insignificant.” 

Devastating Consequences

The consequences of the loneliness epidemic can be devastating. Poor connection can mean a 29% increased risk of heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.

Consequences of Loneliness Infographic

A study by health insurance marketplace company GoHealth found that one in four seniors surveyed were experiencing mental health declines, almost a third were lonely and 80% said the pandemic had impacted how often they saw family or friends. Another study found one in five reported being frequently lonely in the last four years of their lives. According to research sponsored by AARP, isolation is associated with an increased likelihood of early death, dementia and heart disease. Social isolation is more lethal than excessive drinking, smoking or obesity, according to research by BYU.

High-tech and Low-tech Solutions

According to Hospice News, solutions both high and low-tech can, and are, helping fight isolation in hospice while other approaches can help bridge the gap at home.

Hospices around the country have invested in many technology platforms to give residents access to online content, conferencing and calling.

Whether online or in person, from arts and crafts to relaxation and religious gatherings, having programs that provide structure and purpose can help residents feel connected and engaged, experts say.

Physicians can be more proactive in asking about patients’ lives at home. Just giving them space to discuss their social lives can be therapeutic, says Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, and lead author of an isolation study.

How Families, Neighbors and Volunteers Can Help

Families can also set up regular calls or visits where possible, or even stream a movie together or set up a monthly “book club.”

Neighbors and community groups can play a role. The social network site Nextdoor is working with researchers studying the impact of small acts of kindness by neighbors. 

Researchers have also looked at grassroots pen pal programs, but the jury is still out as to whether they are effective.

Volunteers can make a difference with regularly scheduled phone calls, studies have found. Many nonprofit programs seek to connect volunteers to isolated seniors and disabled folks. You can find them in your area by searching online or checking reliable sources like this piece from AARP. Volunteering is helpful both to those who volunteer and to the people they are paired with. It’s a win-win.

The surgeon general’s report lists six ways the nation can address loneliness including strengthening public spaces like parks and libraries. Others say having more "third spaces" can alleviate isolation.

Advice, Resources and Tips 

Whether you are a health or hospice care provider, family member or senior in need of services, there are additional resources and information available. 

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff writes, “The steps to tackle loneliness aren’t grand, high-tech or expensive. In fact, one of the strategies is simply to get people back into old-fashioned patterns like eating meals together, holding parties and volunteering to help one another out.”

National Institute on Aging

Covia.org

Dorot

Friend to Friend America

Letters Against Isolation

For more advice on how to handle difficult times, we've created Bracing for Goodbye: Finding Strength in Life's Toughest Moments.