It is not uncommon for me to read the obituary of strangers. Sometimes the picture catches my attention, their age, or some key word. In March I read one in a regional newspaper about John Cacioppo. For four decades Dr. Cacioppo, was a researcher on loneliness. His obituary said that he was sometimes called Dr. Loneliness. I had to do more research.
Google told me that he wrote several books and over 500 articles on the subject of loneliness. He wrote that loneliness is more than a state of mind—it is a disease that is contagious, inheritable and damages the heart.
His interest in this area of research was attributed to a near death experience he had as a young man when he learned what was really important in life—“love and social connection.” Loneliness is the absence of social connection. It isn’t how many people you know but rather meaningful interactions; a sense of meaning and purpose. Cacioppo estimated that about one-quarter of the population regularly feels lonely and that loneliness poses an enhanced risk of death as significant as that of being obese or smoking.
The Indiana Institute on Disability and Community reports that almost 75% of waiver clients spend the majority of their day in their residence, activity center or sheltered workshop. For too many of these individuals, paid staff are the only people with whom they interact on a daily basis.
Each of our days may be filled with chance encounters with neighbors at the mailbox, friends at church, fitness clubs or PTA meetings. We may have friends at work, book club or community volunteer activities. Each encounter contributes to a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives and fights off the disease of loneliness. For the person with a disability who is spending their days in workshops or activity centers, their co-workers are their friends and too often the only non-paid interaction of the day.
One of AWS Foundation’s initiatives is Social Enrichment. We recognize the isolation and loneliness that is a routine part of life for the person with a disability. Through inclusive social, recreational and arts programs, we seek to engage and inspire individuals with enduring disabilities. Through our grants we strive to provide the opportunities for volunteerism, access to the theater, music, recreation and all the great things that make our community our home. We all want a life with a variety of experiences.
What can you do to help with fighting the illness of loneliness for the person with a disability? Is there someone in your neighborhood who would welcome a visit or perhaps an invitation to your next backyard grill? Perhaps a cup of coffee after the church service is one that can be shared. Where is there the opportunity to provide a sense of meaning and purpose?
We all want a life that is shared. We all want a life with a social connection and less loneliness.