Editor's note: Reporter Lois Collins wrote a three-part series on loneliness titled, "Living Lonely." Part one, "Seniors in search of a song," discusses how keeping busy and staying connected helps seniors combat the loneliness of old age. In addition, Collins wrote a reporter's notebook, which chronicles her experience writing this series. The notebook is featured below.
Sometimes, a statistic hits like a kick in the stomach. In my case, it was the tidbit that old men kill themselves at an unusually high rate.
Lonely old men. There aren’t huge numbers of them, comparatively. Women tend to outlive men. And most suicide attempts involve much younger people. But old people are more likely to complete a suicide. Especially lonely old men.
That got me thinking about loneliness, which led logically to the next question: Are some groups of people more likely to be devastated by loneliness than others?
Over several months and lots of conversations, I learned that certain refugees — Iraqi women or the elderly, for example — are more prone to loneliness when they resettle than other groups.
The third group came to mind from a moment my family lived many years ago. My mom and dad had moved into a new house and my nephew burst into the room with great excitement. He was no more than 4 at the time. He told my mom, who was born blind, that her new neighbor had no leg. She told him not to mention it to the man.
That puzzled little Ken. “But Grandma,” he protested, “I think he knows.”
If we pretend not to see the people around us because we don't know what to say to them — that happens a lot to the families of children who have certain illnesses or disabilities — they can become very lonely. And we miss out.
This summer, I applied to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism for a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship to explore the health impacts of social isolation and loneliness on these three vulnerable groups of people: the elderly, refugees, and the families of children who have special challenges.
What happens when you’re lonely? And what can you do to head it off or send it packing?
If you’d like to know more about the groups or people in this series, here’s a small guide to get you started.
A good place to start thinking about children and their families is your local children's hospital. In Utah, where I live, it's Primary Children's Hospital. Many disabling conditions or medical diagnoses make children and their kin more prone to isolation. The Children's Cancer Network and American Cancer Society have valuable suggestions. To learn more about children with disabilities, visit Easter Seals or March of Dimes. Among other conditions that can challenge and isolate a family — and the list is far from exhaustive — are severe combined immunodeficiency, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, heart defects and autism.
If you think you might be lonely, check out the UCLA Loneliness Scale.
And finally, thanks to the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships for agreeing loneliness could use another look.
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