Coping with loneliness: single life more common in Somerset, Cambria counties
Jayne Highlands has spent most of her years as an unmarried and childless woman, but that has not prevented her from having a fulfilling life with meaningful friendships and memories. In recent years, however, she’s seen many of her friends die. It’s left her with a sense of loneliness.
“I’m not designed to live alone,” Highlands said. “I need someone to share the house with me, and the cats and the dog. I’ve never had that experience of not having a life full of people. and it’s been very challenging, both health-wise and emotionally.”
Highlands, 63, of Johnstown, is one of the many people in similar circumstances in Somerset and Cambria counties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 50 percent of Cambria County residents and about 54 percent of Somerset County residents were married in 2017. Around half of each county were either never married or were divorced, widowed or separated.
The change in culture has reflected a decades-long shift. In 1960, 72 percent of Americans were married. Now, nationally, the rate is around 50 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
With that have come new health challenges, including coping and dealing with loneliness in certain periods of life. According to a December study published by the University of California in Los Angeles, loneliness was correlated with worse mental and physical functioning. Loneliness severity and age had a complex relationship, with increased loneliness in late 20s, mid 50s and late 80s.
Dr. Umesh Chakunta, a psychiatrist at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, referred to a U.S. News and World Report article when he said loneliness does not necessarily mean social isolation. Rather, loneliness is considered to be subjective, based on what people feel. Loneliness has been previously defined as “distress because of the discrepancy between actual social relationships and desired social relationships. There is a discrepancy between what I want and what I have.”
A sedentary lifestyle has been found to increase loneliness, which also causes worsening of physical condition, Chakunta said.
“Social connections appear to be a protective factor against loneliness. Increasing social connections within communities may be a way to prevent individuals feeling lonely. That said, being that loneliness is subjective, what might help one individual might not help another, therefore the solutions to improving loneliness may need to be tailored to specific individuals.”
Rheumatoid arthritis has been part of the reason Highlands didn’t get married and have children. But despite that medical problem, she managed to form platonic relationships with people that kept her from being lonely. She had frequent get-togethers with friends while living with her long-time roommate, Kitty, who died recently. Many more of her peers started dying after that. She knows the importance of meeting people in the real world.
“The idea of hugging, that is something that is very important. That is something that I certainly miss. The idea of human contact, it used to be that people always left with each other hugging each other. There’s no replacement for that, but you can use social media and stay in touch or connected even when you can’t get around.”
Chakunta said that highly lonely people are more likely to be single, living alone and have a personal income of less than $35,000. He also said that according to investigators “wisdom appeared to be a protective factor against loneliness. People who had qualities of wisdom, including empathy, compassion, control over their emotions, self reflection, are less likely to feel lonely.”
Highlands has some advice for people who have spent their time in a way similar to hers.
“Stay connected with people. Don’t give up on yourself or on people,” she said. “Just find something that interests you and you will draw people to you that will want to share in it. Figure out what you love to do and figure out how to share it with others.”