Thanksgiving is almost here, which means it must be time for the deluge of requisite articles about the sense of loneliness that pervades the holiday season. That’s in no way meant to underestimate the importance of the theme. Indeed, many people feel incredibly lonely during the holidays, even more so because all of the messages we receive telling us that at this time of year more than any other, our lives are supposed to be full of love, joy, and quality time spent with friends and family. For many people, though, it doesn’t work out that way.
Loneliness isn’t just a problem during the holidays. In fact, some suggest that it might be the next big public health issue — and it hits the LGBT community particularly hard. A much-noticed article in The Huffington Post by Michael Hobbes last spring argues that there exists an “epidemic” of loneliness among gay men in their 30s and 40s. Hobbes cites data indicating that gay men have fewer friends than straight people (and lesbians), carry into adulthood a sense of distance from other people as a result of survival strategies developed during childhood, and often compensate for that social disconnect with plentiful sex that creates momentary feelings of intimacy but no enduring connection.
Unfortunately, ample evidence indicates that often, loneliness doesn’t get better with age for LGBT people but instead becomes more acute. This stems from what for many are defining characteristics of the LGBT aging experience. As LGBT people age, we are twice as likely to be single and to live alone. We also grow old poorer and less healthy than the population as a whole. And we’re less likely to be religious. According to a recent study by AARP, all of these factors tend to correlate with loneliness.
Older Americans who are partnered or married are much less likely to be lonely in the later years. Moreover, the AARP study indicates that there is a strong tie between loneliness and poverty: 45 percent of those with annual incomes of less than $25,000 say they are lonely versus 29 percent of those with incomes of more than $75,000. There is an even stronger correlation between poor health and loneliness: 55 percent of those in poor health are lonely versus only 25 percent of those in excellent health. And, according to AARP, religiosity deters loneliness, with only 27 percent of those who identify as being very religious reporting being lonely versus 43 percent who say they’re not religious at all.
Given all this, it should come as no surprise that so many LGBT elders reveal that they, in fact, do feel lonely. Some 59 percent report that they lack companionship, 53 percent say that they feel isolated, and 25 percent note that they have nobody to contact in case of an emergency.
The good thing is, it doesn’t need to be this way. In fact, many LGBT older people live vibrant, socially connected lives. They have active social lives, sometimes with friends of multiple generations. Their families of choice provide strong support networks. They are involved in their communities, volunteer for local organizations, and otherwise live full lives. Many are engaged in politics and activism; some are active in churches or are otherwise spiritual (though, according to a study by SAGE, less than 10 percent see church or faith as part of their support system). Many report high levels of satisfaction with their social lives.
The many examples of resiliency among LGBT older people provide some hints about how we can disrupt loneliness as we get older. Life plans, or just being a little more intentional about the future, can help. For example, most people’s friends tend to be roughly their own age, but we can intentionally decide to seek out friendships with younger people, recognizing that as we grow older, our peers often become less plentiful. Developing a hobby or two is a great antidote to loneliness. The AARP study reports that only 35 percent of people with hobbies feel lonely, as opposed to 51 percent of those without hobbies. Hobbies like exercise, yoga, and meditation are doubly beneficial because they contribute to good health.
Similarly, volunteering for something you care about reduces loneliness. Volunteerism opportunities for LGBT people are limitless — whether it’s helping out in one of the multitude of community organizations or getting involved in political and advocacy efforts during these uniquely challenging times. Attending an activity or meal at a local LGBT community center or senior center can be a great way to ward off the blues. Some of my fondest holiday memories in recent years come from spending time with our elders at the annual SAGE Thanksgiving meal.
Just as there are plenty of things to do to disrupt loneliness, there are things not to do. Don’t self-isolate. Don’t self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or smoking -- all of which have been shown to make people feel more, not less, lonely. While the Internet can be a great way to stay connected, don’t let it take the place of real connection with real human beings as some evidence suggests that too much reliance on the Internet can actually increase loneliness. If you’re feeling really lonely, or depressed, or self-destructive, don’t ignore it. Seek guidance from a therapist or doctor, or call a help line for assistance. The SAGE National LGBT Elder Hotline can be reached at (888) 234-SAGE.
We can also do much at the community level. If we work together to be inter-connected, intergenerational communities, we can reduce loneliness among LGBT people of all ages. Intergenerational communities leverage the contributions of everybody, including our elders, helping them to remain valued community members. These communities offer mentoring, experience, and wisdom to younger generations, all of which are even more important during tough times. Many younger LGBT people, who until recently had known only the increased progress and acceptance that characterized the Obama years, report being caught off guard and disoriented by the rise of an anti-LGBT federal government and backsliding on equality in the era of Trump.
So let’s make this holiday season a time of building connections, and continue that work throughout the year. As individuals and as a community, let’s disrupt the epidemic of loneliness for LGBT people of all ages.