“Find Yourself First.” “Don’t Be in a Hurry.” “Stay Connected to Friends While You’re Young.” “Treat Loneliness as a Thief in the Night.” These are just some of the insights that participants in the Listen program wrote as news headlines during the final writing activity of the program’s pilot run.
Laurie Theeke, a nurse practitioner in the West Virginia University School of Medicine and associate professor in the WVU School of Nursing, developed Listen to give lonely people the skills to explore what makes them lonely and devise strategies to feel more connected.
The results of the pilot test, which the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation funded, are promising: 12 weeks after the program’s conclusion, participants reported feeling less lonely, perceived more social support in their lives and had healthier blood pressures.
The 27 study participants—all lonely, chronically ill seniors from Appalachia—met two hours a week for five weeks and performed activities and writing exercises that touched on their experiences with loneliness. For example, at one session, Theeke had participants bring in objects that made them think of belonging; then participants shared the story behind the objects with the group.
“I had people bring everything from a pair of shoes to a stuffed frog,” said Theeke, who also directs the School of Nursing’s doctoral program.
She calls loneliness “the smoldering stressor.” It can exacerbate hypertension and make obesity more likely. It contributes to depression, heightens anxiety and is associated with elevated rates of smoking and drug use. Among seniors, it predicts functional decline and mortality.
It’s “killing people,” Theeke said.
According to her, 17 to 30 percent of older people are lonely, but no interventions have been appropriately tested to demonstrate how effectively they diminish loneliness. In West Virginia—where the elderly make up a high percentage of the population and where chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure are common—loneliness may have an outsize impact.
The state’s culture itself may play a role, even for individuals who aren’t elderly. Accordingly, Theeke is expanding Listen to accommodate younger participants. Her preliminary research indicates that middle-aged West Virginians, particularly men, score high in loneliness. And, their high loneliness scores correlate to increased anger and poor self-management. In response, Theeke is launching a new project to explore how Listen could reduce loneliness and anger, and improve self-management skills, in these midlife individuals.
“There’s a cultural thing in Appalachia, where you want to be independent. We don’t want to ask for help,” Theeke said. “I grew up in Appalachia. We’re taught family first; family’s so important. It’s quite possible that family won’t meet all your needs to belong.”
Through the Listen program, lonely people may find new ways to belong—by staying connected to friends, by not hurrying or by keeping vigilant against the “thief” of loneliness.
Wendi MacKay, WVU School of Nursing
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