In an October, the perceptive Pope Francis told an interviewer, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more.”
A post-Valentine’s Day news report confirms the pope’s observation: A new study shows that people who feel consistently lonely have a 14 percent higher risk of premature death than those who don’t, USA Today reported. The effect of loneliness on early death is almost as strong as the effect of being poor, which increased the chances of dying early by 19 percent, researchers at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago found.
Feeling lonely and isolated from others can lead to less restful, restorative sleep, raise blood pressure, cause morning increases in the stress hormone cortisol, increase depression and lower the overall feeling of living a meaningful life, the researchers reported.
After being elected pope in March, Francis broke with tradition when he decided to forgo living in the official papal apartments in favor of the much more modest Vatican “hotel.” In a letter to a friend, the 76-year-old pope wrote: “I didn’t want to go and live in the apostolic palace. I go over there just to work and for audiences.
“I’ve remained living in the Casa Santa Marta, which is a residence which accommodates bishops, priests and lay people.” There he feels “part of a family” he wrote.
“I’m visible to people and I lead a normal life — a public Mass in the morning, I eat in the refectory with everyone else, et cetera. All this is good for me and prevents me from being isolated.”
The pope is following the prescription laid out by the researchers, who advise: People “can escape the clutches of loneliness as they age” by staying in touch with former colleagues, maintaining meaningful relationships and participating in family activities.
The problem of course, is the millions of elderly people already living in isolation. Meals on Wheels volunteers report that they are often the only person the meal recipient will see in a day. How lonely a life for those poor elderly people who don’t even get that visit?
While researchers advise people to reach out and make those social connections that keep us healthy, Pope Francis understands the other half of that equation, and urges the rest of us to take the first step and reach out to isolated senior citizens in our community.