loneliness love support teams

Loneliness Can Kill You! No, Really . . . It Can Kill You!

Remember the movie “Crocodile Dundee?” A recent medical journal article with a very dry title made me think of a scene in that movie.

Paul Hogan as "Crocodile Dundee" from the 80's hit film by that name.
Paul Hogan as “Crocodile Dundee” from the 80’s hit film by that name.

Here’s the scene: Crocodile Dundee, himself has gone to a party with his New York girlfriend. Across the crowded room, she points out that her mother has arrived among the revelers accompanied by a distinguished looking man. Dundee asks, “Is that her husband with her,” to which the girlfriend responds, “No. That’s her therapist.”

“Therapist?” Dundee says.

“You know,” says his girlfriend, “Someone to tell her problems to.”

Dundee looks perplexed then says, “Doesn’t she have any mates?” (It’s probably not necessary to say this, but just to be on the safe side, for those of you who don’t know, “mates” is Australian for “friends.”)

Here’s the very dry title that made me think of that movie scene: “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.”  (Click on the title to access the article yourself.) If some real observant, smart people hadn’t boiled it down and reported on it, and a dear friend of mine hadn’t seen the summary and called it to my attention, I’m sure I never would have read the article for myself. However, my friend alerted me to the article and I read it. The article dramatically underlines that there are very real dangers in not having any “mates.”

Here’s one of the more jarring sentences in the article:

“Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity . . . with the risk from social isolation and loneliness (controlling for multiple other factors) being equivalent to the risk associated with Grades 2 and 3 obesity.”

In other words, gaining weight isn’t as dangerous as losing friends! More to the point, Loneliness Can Kill You!

Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.
Even perceiving oneself as isolated can have negative health effects.

The authors of this article are serious research scholars and the “Meta-Analytic Review” they did came from a study of 70 other reports comprising a human case population of over 3 million people. This is no joke. Social isolation is as great a risk (if not greater) than two types of obesity. In fact, after the researchers report that “loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken,” they conclude this way:

Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages for an individual . . . this meta-analysis indicates that physical health is not among them, particularly for adults younger than 65 years of age. Further research is needed to address the complexities of social interactions, interdependence, and isolation . . . but current evidence certainly justifies raising a warning.

Did you catch that? “Unless action is taken,” we’ll see epidemic levels of loneliness in another 15 years.

The authors don’t propose what form that action might take. They ARE implying that the various actions now being taken by congregations, affinity groups, clubs, families – whatever – apparently aren’t doing enough to stem what they perceive as a rising tide of persons with weak to non-existent social ties.

As I do frequently in my job as Support Team Network Manager here in the Department of Pastoral Care at UAB Hospital, I met with a group of people recently who are in the process of organizing themselves into a support team for a friend facing a health care challenge. This team plans to support this friend and his family for a protracted period of time. As I listened to them discuss among themselves how they would share the caring, one man said, “Relationships are worth more than money, you know. Relationships will heal you when all else fails.” Later, when I spoke with the friend’s primary care giver and told her about the team, I could hear the relief and gratitude in her voice. Already she felt better. And when she told her son about the efforts and the smile spread across his face, HE felt better, too, even in the midst of his disease.

That’s why I work with folks organizing support teams. They reconnect us to our most basic selves, selves that were created to thrive in community. When folks organize themselves to care intentionally for someone, love grows, relationships deepen, and everyone experiences a mysterious wholeness. That kind of “action,” if taken en masse, will serve to stem that epidemic of loneliness.

I would love to see this kind of intentional organization happening on a mass scale in our faith congregations everywhere. We have the tools, the know-how, and the people who could nip this rising tide of loneliness in the bud. It all boils down to helping each other build a circle of “mates.”

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