In bleak nursing homes and vibrant college dorms, in crowded cities and spread-out suburbs, Americans confront an ailment with no single cause or cure.
Some call it social isolation or disconnectedness. Often, it’s just plain loneliness.
An age-old ailment, to be sure, and yet by various measures — census figures on one-person households, a new study documenting Americans’ shrinking circle of intimate friends — it is worsening.
It seems ironic, even to those who are affected. The nation has never been more populous, soon to reach the 300 million mark. And it has never been more connected — by phone, e-mail, instant message, text message, and on and on.
Yet so many are alone in the crowd.
“People are increasingly busy,” said Margaret Gibbs, a psychologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “We’ve become a society where we expect things instantly, and don’t spend the time it takes to have real intimacy with another person.”
Some Americans are making a new commitment, getting reconnected in groups or one-on-one and combating a phenomenon that can take a heavy toll on communities and individuals.
In its most pronounced forms, loneliness is considered a serious, even life-threatening condition, heightening the risks of heart disease and depression. A sense of isolation can strike at almost any age, in any demographic sector — parents struggling to adjust to empty-nest status, divorcees unable to rebuild a social life, even seemingly self-confident college students.
John Powell, a psychologist at the University of Illinois counseling center, says it’s common for incoming freshmen to stay in their rooms, chatting by computer with high school friends rather than venturing out to get-acquainted activities on campus.
“The frequency of contact and volume of contact does not necessarily translate into the quality of contact,” Powell said.
One in four live alone
The trend toward isolation surfaced in the last U.S. census figures, which show that one-fourth of the nation’s households — 27.2 million of them — consisted of just one person, compared to 10 percent in 1950.
In June, an authoritative study in the American Sociological Review found that the average American had only two close friends in whom they would confide on important matters, down from an average of three in 1985. The number of people who said they had no such confidant soared from 10 percent in 1985 to nearly 25 percent in 2004; an additional 19 percent said they had only one confidant — often their spouse.
“That may be the most worrisome thing,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who co-authored the study. “If you lose that one person, because the relationship declines or the person dies, you have no one to support you. If we’re all becoming more dependent on our spouse or partner for that kind of complete knowing of each other, we’re all vulnerable to losing that.”
The study suggested an array of possible causes — including an increase in working/commuting hours and expanding use of the Internet to stay in touch with other people, lessening the need for face-to-face contacts.
“We e-mail each other rather than calling or meeting, so there can be a sense of connection but also a loss of actual time spent with friends and families,” Gibbs said.
Some Americans shrug off the trend, content with their ever-evolving social circles. Others, though, are unsettled at what they see and feel, and search for remedies.
Karina Penaranda was at Mass in 2002 when it dawned on her that her peers at her Roman Catholic church in Phoenix — single adults 35 to 60 — had no fixed place in the diocese’s social orbit.
“There were groups for elderly people, marriage encounters for couples — and youth groups are everywhere,” said Penaranda, who is in her 40s. “Once single people reach this age they don’t have a community. They don’t really have a place to go where they can share their hopes and dreams.”
With a few other parishioners, Penaranda founded a group called Catholic Singles Ministry. It now draws scores of people from across the Phoenix area and beyond to twice-yearly retreats and to events ranging from prayer breakfasts to bowling nights to food-bank volunteer work.
“We have people who’ve been divorced, been widowed, never been married,” she said. “At our retreats we talk about loneliness, relationships. ... You know that you’re not alone in going through this journey.”
Penaranda, a project manager for a bank, has never been married. She savors socializing, but it takes conscious effort.
“The busyness in people’s lives is one of things that prevents it,” she said. “That happens to me — I get immersed in work, and have to step back and say, 'Time out.'"
One of Penaranda’s colleagues in the ministry, Monica Smith, said community service is a key element.
“We’re reaching out to others in our singleness, our aloneness,” she said. “It gives us, without family, without children, a greater sense of belonging.”
Meeting a need
Singles ministries have proliferated nationwide, notably at megachurches. At Parkcrest Christian Church in Long Beach, Calif., about 150 of the 2,500-member congregation participate in a group for singles aged 35 to 65.
“They’re looking to connect with other people in a society that’s geared to married people, to people with families,” said the Rev. Jim Vlahos, Parkcrest’s singles minister.
Many of the group’s members are divorced, said Vlahos, himself a never-married 41-year-old.
“Once someone gets divorced, they tend to lose their married friends,” he observed. “It’s not a stigma thing, it’s an awkward thing — 'Oh, you’re single now, and we do married things.'"
Having a spouse and children doesn’t insulate adults from bouts of loneliness; one particularly vulnerable subset are parents confronting the empty-nest syndrome as their children reach young adulthood and leave home.
“Some take it really really hard,” said Jeanine Herrin of Inglis, Fla., who launched an Internet chat room called Empty Nest Moms. “That’s all they did — they lived and breathed kids, and all of the sudden the kids are gone.”
She noted that many such parents had a network of adults they knew through their children’s activities — a network that can shrink or vanish when the children leave.
“Some moms are almost basket cases when they come into our group,” Herrin said. “But with most of them, you can feel that sense of relief, that they’re not really going crazy, that there are so many others feeling the same way.”
Some husbands share the emotional rollercoaster, while others “just don’t understand at all,” Herrin said. “Some are thrilled to death the kids are gone.”
Many of the hundreds of women who have posted messages on the Web site candidly acknowledge their bouts of crying and self-pity. One mother described in detail her devastation over the departure of her youngest child, and then the elation of filling the emptiness by becoming a foster parent.
Ellen Ritter, who has a doctorate in psychology, works as a “family transitions coach” in Hudson, Ohio, and often counsels empty-nest mothers. “It’s really hard to make new friends,” she said, “and that’s why so many women are reaching out to the Internet.”
If some empty-nest parents feel a void in their lives, so do some of their absent children
“A lot of students go through periods of loneliness,” said Zanny Altschuler, 20, of Menlo Park, Calif., who is completing her freshman year this summer at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
“The social life on campus can be crazy,” she said. “Rather than sticking with close friendships that can be hard to maintain, people forge a broader circle of acquaintances.”
Altschuler cited the phenomenon of Facebook.com, the social-networking Web site on which students can enumerate their “friends.”
“You go on some profiles and they say they have 1,000 friends, and they probably don’t even know half of them,” she said.
John Powell, from his vantage point at the Illinois counseling center, says students increasingly have difficulty “making really satisfying connections” even though the university offers many activities to bring students together.
“All the students I work with have incredibly many pseudo-intimate relationships online — but without the kind of risk and vulnerability that goes with sitting across a cafe booth from another person,” Powell said.
Sean Seepersad, who now teaches at California State University, Fresno, earned his doctorate at Illinois last year by designing an intervention program for lonely students.
Seepersad said some of the students were predictably shy and withdrawn, others on the surface seemed extroverted and socially skilled. He encouraged them to share their feelings, analyze why they felt lonely and work on their social skills.
“Lonely people may not be aware of things they’re doing that perpetuate the problem,” he said. “It’s something that can be helped.”
Old and alone
She laughs gently at her blunt self-analysis, but Helen Granath doesn’t mince words.
“It’s a very lonely existence — most of the time the loneliness can be excruciating and painful,” says the 84-year-old widow from San Francisco. “I have very few friends. They’re either ill or they’ve passed away or moved somewhere else.”
Her husband died 30 years ago; she says her son “is very busy in the computer business. I don’t see him very often.”
No data set enumerates how many elderly Americans feel such pangs of loneliness, but undoubtedly there are millions who could empathize with Granath. She ventures out of her apartment for errands and movies, but is slowed by leukemia and arthritis and — after the latest in a series of hip replacements — sought help and companionship from a volunteer group called Little Brothers — Friends of the Elderly.
For the past several years, the group has sent volunteers to visit her — bringing flowers on holidays and gifts on her birthday.
Jim Doyle, 48, who does promotional work in San Francisco for a movie theater chain, started volunteering for Little Brothers this year, and has become the sole loyal friend of a 67-year-old developmentally disabled man named Frank.
“He lives by himself, and does custodial work, but other than that he didn’t have a whole lot to do,” said Doyle. “He’d stay home and watch a lot of TV. Now we got out to the movies, for walks — he calls me all the time. He appreciates it, and it’s been great for me.”
Bob Moody, a retired Chicago businessman, has been volunteering for Little Brothers since 1981 — he had been visiting his cancer-stricken mother in a nursing home and noticed that many patients didn’t have visitors.
Since then, he’s devoted each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter to visits with isolated seniors, as well as making visits periodically throughout the year.
“Let’s face it,” Moody said. “Old people can be grouchy sometimes. With some, there’s a little mistrust early on because they don’t really know you. But as time goes on, they gradually open up.”
One refrain he hears: “My kids don’t live that far away, but they don’t come to visit me.”
His current Little Brothers friend is Rocky Lepore, an 85-year-old blind man who savors the visits. “He always wants to give me something,” Moody said, “a box of candy, some little mints.”
Connecting with neighbors
If anyone was pleased by the June report on shrinking circles of close friends, it was Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who viewed it as vindication of his best-selling book “Bowling Alone.”
Some academics had challenged his thesis in 2000 that civic engagement and neighborliness were on the decline, but many Americans took the message to heart.
Close to Putnam’s home base at Harvard, for example, David Crowley has founded an organization called Social Capital Inc. that is striving to connect neighbors and build civic spirit in the Boston-area communities of Woburn, Dorchester and Lynn.
“People are less connected to their neighbors today, and they miss that,” Crowley said.
His projects seek to use the Internet as a connecting tool.
Last winter, for example, SCI members in Woburn received an e-mail notice that one elderly, low-income resident was worried how he would get his driveway cleared of snow. Within a day, Crowley said, a neighbor volunteered to use his snowblower to the keep the driveway clear all winter.
Putnam, in an interview, said vibrant social networks have benefits for individuals in terms of health and happiness, and for communities as well.
“The crime rates are lower, the schools work better, the economy works better,” he said.
New ways of connecting
The challenges to connectedness are many. Strolls through the neighborhood and visits on front porches have been replaced in many cases by retreats indoors to be entertained by TVs, computers and video games.
Spouses are more likely to be both working and less likely to have one or two other couples with whom they forge close, long-lasting ties. Instead, they may have a broader circle of couples they know only casually through their children’s schools or sports leagues.
“We’ve brought more women into the workplace, but we have not addressed the consequences for families and communities,” Putnam said. “We need to invent new ways of connecting.”