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  • Cameron Oglesby

These 4 mistakes can make you lonelier

In an 81-page report released last week, the US Surgeon General stated that loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that about half of US adults have experienced it.

It increases the risk of premature death by almost 30%, the report says, along with risks of stroke and heart disease. And, of particular concern to older adults and their families, it also increases the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and dementia.

According to the 85-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, social connections were one of the strongest predictors of a happy, healthy life. But, according to clinical psychologist Jelena Kecmanovic, four mistakes keep people (particularly older ones) from making social connections:

1. Fear of appearances: Many people fear rejection because they see their self-image as unappealing – older people even more so. This is why, for example, 50 percent of younger elders (ages 65 to 74) avoid using grab bars, canes, walkers, hearing aids, and other equipment they fear would stigmatize them as old and vulnerable. But, says Dr. Kecmanovic, “When you cut yourself some slack and reach out to others, you will discover that mutually sharing our imperfect selves is the very thing people bond over. By gradually experimenting with behaviors that get us closer to people, we can realize that others are more accepting than we imagined and end up feeling better about ourselves.”

2. Fear of annoying strangers: In 2014, when a study asked Chicago commuters what would happen if they struck up a conversation with a stranger, they said they were sure the stranger would be annoyed. But when the researchers asked them to deliberately talk to fellow commuters, they were pleasantly surprised with the results. Later research confirmed that when people – even shy people – reach out to strangers and acquaintances, they feel better, get a sense of belonging, and learn useful information. So start a conversation when you’re waiting in the checkout line, with the front-desk staff or other patients at your doctor’s or dentist’s office, or the wait staff at your favorite restaurant. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how well most people react, and at how you may be opening some doors to future connections.

3. Fear of being nosy: Chitchat about the weather doesn’t lead to fulfilling social connections. Asking personal questions can. When participants in another study were told to ask friends and strangers sensitive questions, the resulting impression was no worse than with participants who avoided sensitive questions. People love to talk about their favorite subject, which is themselves. So chances are your “nosy” questions will lead to more interesting and fulfilling conversations.

4. Fear of imposing: “How often have you avoided asking for practical or emotion help, out of concern of appearing needy, helpless or demanding,” asks Dr. Kecmanovic. “Or because of fear that you’d be burdening or inconveniencing others?” Odds are, you wouldn’t feel that way if a friend or acquaintance asked you for a favor. People are hard-wired with a need to be needed. They feel good being seen as a trusted source of help or advice. And research consistently finds that people underestimate how willing and happy others are to help even strangers. Those kinds of good feelings can turn encounters into friendships and acquaintances into friends.

There’s a fifth mistake that can contribute to loneliness, and that’s related to senior care. Too many senior care agencies deal with only a client’s physical and activities-of-daily-life issues, but not psychosocial needs. But our detailed needs assessment, which includes interviews with prospective clients and their families, covers three areas affecting seniors’ lives: not just physical and mental status, but psychosocial status as well. And, as no less an authority than the United States Surgeon General pointed out, psychosocial status can have a major effect on physical and mental status. Please contact us to learn more.

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