02 Dec 2019 CAUSE & EFFECT Easing Loneliness Through Connection
The holiday season in Southwest Florida is truly a season of warmth, not only with our glorious winter weather, but also the emotional warmth that comes from gathering with family, friends, colleagues and all those who are important in our lives. It’s a time of year when we are reminded that togetherness, that feeling of connection, gives the holidays their heart.
But there are those in our region for whom togetherness and connection during this special time of year is sadly absent. These are the lonely.
The first time I genuinely came to understand the extent of loneliness in our community was back in 2006. At the time, I worked with Meals on Wheels, the venerable organization that delivers meals to those who lack mobility, with a large portion of those being elderly and homebound. On those occasions when I had the opportunity to drive the routes and distribute meals, I came to realize that our team delivered so much more than food and nutritional sustenance. We also delivered emotional sustenance through simple human connection.
I would occasionally take my then five-year son with me because I liked him being involved with me in that type of service and, just as importantly, because the people we visited always seemed to light up at the sight of a smiling little child. They shone with happiness because they had visitors, someone with whom to talk and interact, if even for a short time.
The more miles I drove delivering meals throughout our community, including through neighborhoods and along streets I had formerly driven past every day without a second thought, the more startled I grew by the number of residents who would tell me we were the only people they saw all day. And in too many cases, it was a mere three days a week they experienced that basic connection so fundamental to each of us as human beings.
While the majority of those I visited were the elderly, which regional social service organizations continue to serve with inspiring care and compassion, feelings of loneliness and social isolation does not discriminate by age or location, and Southwest Florida presents our local challenge as part of a larger issue.
Increasingly, national studies show generations spanning 70 years, from the Silent Generation (1925-1945) to Gen-Z (1995-present), are all impacted. In fact, a recent report on loneliness and social isolation co-sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Economist revealed that 22% of adults in the country say they often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others.
The study noted three converging and contributing factors: an aging population, an increasing use of technology, and the heightened recognition of the impact of loneliness on overall health and well-being.
Crucially, a key finding was that those who reported feeling lonely reported a lack of meaningful connections with others. While that may seem obvious, the results are about so much more than numbers and data – each and every number is a life.
My Meals on Wheels experience provided a living, breathing example of how loneliness and connection are opposite sides of the same coin. I didn’t need reams of data to decipher the smiles on the faces when my young son and I showed up at homebound residents’ doors as perhaps the only people they saw that day.
Back then, I came to think of them as the hidden hungry. Today, I would broaden that description to the hidden lonely. As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to contemplate that, the good news is, fostering connections is something to which we can all contribute.
It’s possible there is someone struggling with loneliness on your street or in your neighborhood, so the question becomes: how can we provide them the connectivity they need?
Often in the rush of our daily lives, it’s difficult to find the time to learn about the many community resources available to assist those coping with feelings of loneliness and isolation, whether those are attributable to aging in place as a surviving spouse, mental health concerns, a young person struggling to fit in at school, or a range of other life challenges that contribute to such feelings.
Although there is no one-size fits-all approach, a great place to start learning about how you can help someone is simply by visiting unitedwaylee.org to find information on volunteer opportunities. If you are suffering from loneliness and need help just dial 211 from your phone. You’ll be connected to United Way’s free and confidential service that helps people find locally curated social services to meet their particular needs.
Closer to home, consider getting to know a neighbor whom you have never met. I carry with me the realization that there are lonely lives unfolding in neighborhoods we drive or walk every day and that new, life-changing connections can start with the friendly wave of a hand. An acknowledgement of someone there. An invitation to connect.
In the spirit of the holiday season, let’s all consider giving the gift of our time to someone for whom the holidays may not be jingle bells and joy. If we take a neighborly moment to reach out, we might be surprised by those who would welcome the chance to reach back.
This coming year we hope to inspire regional nonprofits to look at everything they do and apply the “loneliness lens.” How can we all do more to serve the needs of the lonely? How can we break down barriers to connection? We hope to continue the conversation. If you are interested, please reach out to me at [email protected]
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $83.7 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com