Volunteering to aid others helped me battle loneliness

Is chronic loneliness on the rise, or is it just me?

That’s the question I was asking myself last summer when my marriage ended about a month after I lost my job.

To make matters worse, I kept imagining that everyone else was having a great social life, while I was lonely. Then, I picked up a book by the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, in which she recommends to anyone going through a hard time to turn their attention outward toward others who are suffering. As I did so, I wondered if I might actually be in the majority.

So, I did some research, and this is what I learned. A 2010 AARP The Magazine survey found 35 percent of 40- and 50-year-olds are chronically lonely. In 2016, Dr. Oz and his team discovered that 20 percent of women experience chronic loneliness. The AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect reports that 17 percent of adults over 65 are isolated, and 51 percent of those 75 and older live alone.

What exactly is loneliness? Researchers describe it as a discrepancy between the number and quality of social connections that we want versus what we actually have. We also experience loneliness if we feel like we are not engaged in typical activities for our stage of life, such as working or having children.

Who is most susceptible to developing chronic loneliness? Adolescents facing problems at school, those over age 80, unemployed middle-aged people, single people, those with lower incomes, people with health issues and those without access to transportation. And the internet makes the lonely feel lonelier.

Everyone experiences loneliness from time to time, but it becomes serious when it is chronic, leading to health problems, such as obesity (loneliness can actually make you feel hungrier), sleep disorders, high blood pressure, depression and early death. One reason loneliness is hard to address is that most people don’t like to talk about it.

To admit feelings of loneliness feels shameful, like saying there’s something wrong with you. In their book, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” John Cacioppo and William Patrick explain that there may be a genetic component to loneliness. Some people, they claim, may have “a high sensitivity to feeling the absence of connection.”

This makes sense. People differ in many ways, so one person’s need for connection may be easy to meet, while another person’s longing may feel frighteningly impossible to attain.

So, what’s a lonely person to do? The most important thing is to forge social connections. This can be difficult for the lonely, who tend to turn inward and become lonelier as a result. But it’s not enough to just connect with people. We need to help them.

And that’s where volunteering comes in. Volunteering is a wonderful way to cultivate a sense of belonging. At about the same time I was feeling lonely last year, I saw an ad in the paper requesting volunteers for an organization I thought I might like to join. I called them and began working as a volunteer immediately.

My loneliness didn’t disappear overnight. In fact, there were weeks when the only thing getting me through the day was counting the number of days until it was time to go to my volunteer job again. But, slowly, things changed. I started to feel valued. And when I realized that the organization I was working for was actually alleviating loneliness for thousands of people across Kentucky, I felt like I was part of the solution to a problem bigger than my own.

And there was a bonus, too. Prospective employers loved to hear me talk about my volunteer work.

If you would like to give volunteering a try but don’t know where to begin, go to volunteermatch.org and type in Lexington, Ky. You’ll find hundreds of opportunities right here. For more ideas about combating loneliness in the elderly, visit Connect2Affect.org.

Donna Guardino is a tutor and ESL instructor in Lexington. She volunteers at Radio Eye. Reach her at guardidj@yahoo.com.