This holiday season plucked discordant strings of loneliness for me, which resonated off-key because of an overlap with exacerbating Parkinson’s symptoms.
We tried the family video chat. Maybe we are too old-fashioned, but the experience left us feeling empty and even lonelier. Mrs. Dr. C had a slight advantage with an option to read captions, so she could “hear” everyone. But with my vision, and a screen barely bigger than a cellphone, I couldn’t see the small faces. It felt so close, yet so far. If we could just reach out and give a healing hug to dearest family members — but we were blocked by a wall of technology.
The holiday loneliness required something more than our usual year-end holiday card, so we made a video to share. As we get into our elder years and struggle with chronic illness, connecting with family and friends becomes a priority need. Yes, it is a need, on the same level as eating, sleeping, and finding meaning in life. Connecting is linked to health and well-being, especially with those who have Parkinson’s.
Research about social isolation in connection with Parkinson’s disease is scarce. A 2020 study surveyed people with Parkinson’s to evaluate whether social isolation was associated with symptom severity and quality of life. According to the study, “Individuals who reported being lonely experienced a 55% greater symptom severity than those who were not lonely.”
The feeling is not just “I’m sad.” Symptom severity can increase. It also is likely that loneliness influences, and is influenced by, anxiety and depression that comes with the disease and the holidays.
There are different levels to the identification of loneliness. According to Brain&Life magazine, “Emotional loneliness is a lack of intimacy or attachment. Social loneliness involves unsatisfying personal connections or a feeling of not belonging. Existential loneliness reflects a lack of meaning or a sense of being separate from others and the world.” Are people with Parkinson’s more prone to one, or all, of these?
It is premature to assume that an intensification of symptoms with an increase in loneliness is unique, but it may set up a circle of reinforcement in which symptoms are difficult to manage, and isolation increases frustration and detachment, which in turn separates us further from being able or willing to share our feelings.
The holidays may provide more stress than happiness if not managed well.
There are many ways to combat the loneliness syndrome. Some include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to modify negative thoughts about other people and social interactions.
- Enrichment in pursuing a new activity to give life more meaning, challenging the conductor, and developing new talents to grow and thrive.
- Exercise to improve brain function and emotional regulation.
- Mindfulness to understand the difference between being alone and being lonely.
- Connecting with others through quality of relationships.
- Gratitude and finding joy.
- Wisdom, which is a complex trait that encompasses self-reflection, empathy, compassion, and spirituality. Wisdom is inversely associated with loneliness, according to research by Dr. Dilip Jeste, a prominent neuropsychiatrist.
Attention needs to be given to managing loneliness, not only by the person with the chronic illness, but also by those connected to that person, such as family members, friends, and caretakers.
The worst thing about loneliness is that people stop showing up. Instead, they become consumed by the loneliness. Little by little, they give up on doing things in life that bring meaning and hope and nurture well-being.
For us, weekly emails or texts are important, in which family members or friends ask, “How is it going with [whatever we are doing]?” For Mrs. Dr. C, that often entails family history discoveries. For me, it might be a new video game I’m learning or making progress with my writing. It’s not just a blithe question, but rather a conversation-starter that shows genuine interest in us.
Encouraging someone with a chronic illness to engage and participate in life and acknowledge that they are doing well with those efforts is important in the battle against loneliness. Anything we can do to lessen that effect is worth the effort.
When I hear encouragement and acknowledgement from others to stay engaged in life, I feel empowered. It only takes a few moments, but it has such a profound effect. A short visit when possible, a wave through the window, or a connection via digital communication makes a big difference in the health of those with a chronic illness such as Parkinson’s.
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.
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