Open Your Heart and Gain a Friend

By Meg Nagel, Senior Companion Program Coordinator Region 10

February is the month of love, but not everyone basks in its glow. As our population ages, the number of people finding themselves alone increases. And although the pain of loneliness may be sharper at this time of year, for someone who is isolated, it can be a chronic, year-round fact.

Social isolation and loneliness are related, but they’re also very distinct. Social isolation is objective, with measurable factors: Living alone, having few social ties, and infrequent social contact are all markers of social isolation. Loneliness is personal and subjective: It’s how people perceive their experience—that they may feel they lack the sense of belonging humans need in order to thrive.

Over the past several years, loneliness and isolation have emerged as public health issues. According to a recent report by the AARP Foundation, isolation and loneliness are as bad for health as obesity or smoking. The health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Indeed, isolation increases the risks of an alarming list of negative effects, including high blood pressure, depression and pessimism, cognitive decline, vulnerability for elder abuse, long-term illness, and premature death.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo in his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, posits that pain caused by loneliness is a biological trigger that is similar to physical pain or even hunger and thirst, signaling the need for a change that’s necessary for survival.

You could be the change being called for, because it’s a simple one: a bit of friendly contact. Region 10’s Senior Companion Program connects people. The program pairs volunteers who are active and 55 years old or over with adults who are 60+ and may be homebound, frail, socially isolated, or just needing friendly support.

You can help your paired companion live fully and independently by providing transportation, help with daily tasks, and companionship with activities like going for short walks, reading aloud, playing cards, or simply chatting.

There’s a lovely symmetry in the Senior Companion Program because both people reap the benefits of connecting with each other. Volunteering might just give you the boost you need, and working with others will give you a sense of purpose. Giving of your time, attention, and companionship will add depth to your sense of community and connection.