In today’s tech-savvy, app-happy world, “friends” or “connections” are often only a few clicks away. Yet even as our global society is more interconnected than ever before, loneliness, especially among older people, not only persists but can be the cause of a host of other physical and mental challenges. This year neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published findings identifying a part of the brain that generates feelings of loneliness and is linked to depression, but researchers had already known that loneliness can cause physical pain, wreak havoc on one’s sleep and even increase one’s risk of dying. Recently, Great Britain has devoted increased public health resources to programs intended to ease the effects of loneliness, including a helpline for lonely seniors.
Studies show that feelings of loneliness may have evolved to motivate us to survive by reaching out to our communities. Yet they also show that those suffering from loneliness also can feel more averse to meeting new people, in part out of fear of rejection. Helplines and screenings can help alleviate this pain, but government programs cannot be the only solution. Catholic parishes must play a role in countering what some have termed an “epidemic of loneliness.” Creating groups to visit nursing homes or to organize transportation to and from parish events can be a big help to parishioners who may otherwise be unable or not comfortable enough to attend. Personal invitations often go a long way toward making people feel welcome. And taking the time to stop and talk with new faces at Mass can help to affirm for those who have made the effort to reach out that they are in the right place, one where all are welcome at the table.