AURORA, Colo. — This week, the U.S. Surgeon General declared widespread loneliness a public health epidemic, saying the health risks are as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day and costing the health industry billions of dollars each year.
About half of U.S. adults experience loneliness, Dr. Vivek Murthy said in his report.
“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,” Murthy said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”
Older adults and seniors are at a particular risk of isolation, particularly after a spouse or partner passes away. To address this void of companionship, the CircleTalk program was created in Colorado. It trains professionals and caregivers to facilitate group discussions aimed at forging connections and combating the isolation that can lead to decline in seniors.
“We introduce these kind of universal life themes, through poetry and short stories, and then our wonderful leaders guide that conservation,” said founder and director Deb Scovron. “Everyone has a chance to tell stories that really make up the fabric of who they are in the world.”
“We were coming out of the pandemic, and I really needed to connect with people. I live by myself,” added group leader Kathy Nelson. “I wanted to reach out and make some good connections — not just, you know, ‘hi’ in the grocery store. And when I was presented with the CircleTalk concept, it was like, 'Oh wow, this is perfect.’”
The newly released report from the surgeon general gives a deeper understanding of the dangers to physical health posed by isolation and loneliness. According to the report, “poor or insufficient connection” leads to a 29 percent increase in heart disease; a 32 percent increased risk of stroke; a 50 percent increased risk of dementia in older adults; and a 60 percent increased risk of premature death."
“When the pandemic came along, I couldn’t socialize with my friends a lot, and that really made an impact on me,” said CircleTalk participant Phyllis Brindos. “I was starting to forget things during the pandemic, and I wasn’t doing my normal activities and things, so my muscle started to deteriorate. And I was starting to really forget things and my kids were starting to really worry about me.”
Brindos said she found immense healing through the connections she made during group conversations and activities — to the point that she now has a weekly alarm set on her phone, ensuring she never misses a CircleTalk session. That was a sentiment echoed by fellow participant Janet Neskimen, and described as a “medicine hiding in plain sight” in the surgeon general’s report.
“This has been really nice, the whole CircleTalk, because I’m friends with friends I didn’t know I had before,” Neskimen said. “And it’s branched out and we look out for one another.”
“The thing that I love is when I come in here to do CircleTalk, and there are three or four of them sitting at the table having coffee together. They have bonded. They have made friends,” Nelson said. “I know they’re making those connections outside of the group, and that’s what I really love to hear.”
As the need for connection grows, CircleTalk is working to grow its number of trained group leaders. An online training session is planned for June, and those interested in participating can learn more on the program’s website.