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Social Isolation: A Trend That We Can Change

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Social isolation is becoming more prevalent in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. And during the holidays, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression can be magnified.

A recent study by McPherson et al showed that Americans have one-third fewer friends than they did twenty years ago. The end result is that over the past two decades our social isolation has significantly increased and affects our overall wellbeing and those that we care about. Why is this happening?

In my opinion, part of this phenomenon is linked to our technology obsession--such as computers, Blackberrys, and video games. None of us leave these electronic devices for more than a few hours during the day, so then who has the time or energy to talk face to face with others? Maybe this is why these blog sites are so popular because you can reach so many people and express your opinion without worrying about anyone's response. If you have these same discussions face to face with people that are in your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your workplace, your place of worship, where will it lead? Human interaction and intimacy is more limited and so much safer in the technology-world. Believe me, I know how wonderful technology is in our lives and that it does help us to communicate anywhere we want as frequently as we want but it's the quality of that communication that concerns me. I'm equally guilty of this obsession and I have to consciously tell myself to disconnect to be available to others in my life. And it's not easy.

I personally think that social isolation has increased over the past decade as well. I do not really know my neighbors or their names. Ten years ago, there were neighborhood progressive dinners, block parties, neighborhood clubs and invitations to each other's house for an occasional drink or two. We did know more of our neighbors then. Now there's little interaction except in a crisis. For instance a few weeks ago, someone broke into cars in a few of our neighbors' driveways, so many of our neighbors talked to one another. And recently, my husband was summoned outside to help the neighbors get a deer that had skewered itself on a very pointy fence (now that's one for the books). But other than in these types of limited situations, we really don't see one another.

I'm 48 and I think back 20 years ago and life was so different. Now maybe part of my experience then was linked to the fact that I had a young son. But I spent time at my neighbors' houses and they came over too. We'd watch movies, talk, they'd cook dishes for me and I'd do the same for them. Sometimes, one neighbor would watch my son, so I could go to the grocery store or run errands without lugging a baby around. Another neighbor even painted a portrait of my son as a gift to our family. Those times have sadly come and gone.

But another unfortunate piece of this puzzle is fear. How many of us fear our neighbors? Are worried that if we meet them or talk to them too long that we are opening our doors to who knows what? That leaves people like you and me more isolated and lonely than ever. Studies do show that (like the song) people do need people.

So during the holiday season and beyond, what can we do to change this trend?

*Spend time visiting with neighbors and reintroducing yourself. Consider bringing them a holiday treat. You never know where that will lead.

*Take your personal trainer--your dog(s)--for a walk, make eye contact and say "Hello" to the people you meet along the way.

*Schedule time to visit with friends and family. If that's impossible, call people by phone. It's more intimate than communicating by email. All of us have to make time to be with others and that does take planning with our busy schedules.

*Visit shut-ins, nursing home patients, deliver meals on wheels, bring food to a shelter or food bank. Volunteerism is healing to us and touches others.

*Forgive others and yourself. If you can, fix relationships that you yearn for and are estranged from. It may take pushing your pride out of the way, so you can reunite and reconnect with them.

*Reach out and touch someone you love. When was the last time you hugged and kissed your kids, your friends, and your partner/spouse and really held them tight? Take that moment and cherish it. Not taking our lives for granted is one of the most difficult challenges we face as is living in the moment.

Wishing for all of you to have a holiday season that is disconnected from technology, peaceful, healthy, and intimate!

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