A 10-Minute Phone Call Eases Loneliness

Being lonely poses a medical threat. It increases your risk for early death, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and even your chance of getting a cold! The list of ailments is as long as your arm. While living alone does not immediately cause loneliness, social isolation can lead to being lonely.

This last year has undoubtedly led many of us to feel cut off from others and be more lonely than we usually would be. But, a new study has found that just talking on the phone can be a huge help! The study looked at 240 homebound, older adults for a month. Callers phoned people in the study just to have positive chats.

Folks who received calls over the month reported being 16 percent less lonely on average. Thirty-seven percent of people who were called were less anxious, and 25 percent were less depressed. Researchers were surprised to see the large amount of difference the calls made to anxiety and depression as they were only expecting to see a change in loneliness.

The callers were just people, not medical professionals. They were young, between the ages of 17 and 23. They took an hour-long training course in empathetic listening and conversation. All of the people who received calls were clients of Meals on Wheels Central Texas.

We found that people feel meaningfully better when someone connects with them on their terms, consistently and authentically,” said lead study author Dr. Maninder “Mini” Kahlon, associate professor of population health and executive director of Factor Health at Dell Medical School at The Univ. of Texas at Austin. “In a time of overwhelming need for mental health services across America, this approach offers rapid improvements in loneliness, depression and anxiety. Better still, it’s scalable because it’s delivered by people who are not mental health professionals.”

The people who received the calls decided how frequent they wanted the calls to be and how long the calls should last. The chats were just about how people were doing, discussions about their days. As the callers were trained to listen, the folks being called were leading the conversation. “Sometimes the agenda is just feeling like they have control,” Dr. Kahlon said. When stuck inside and away from people and visitors, it could be the only real control they had over their day.

If you are feeling lonely, Dr. Kahlon suggests reaching out to the people around you. But, she admits that that be difficult because the conversations helped as the callers really listened to the other person. “The reality is, this can only happen if there’s someone else who takes an interest in you.” You have to trust the other person to care about what you are saying.

Reach out to your close friends or family first and go from there. Speaking up for yourself can also help. If a person knows that you are lonely, they are far more likely to stay on the phone and call back to check-in than if you say that you’re, “just calling to check in.” Everyone needs people to lean on, and it’s okay to look for support from the people you care about. If you speak up, they might say they’ve needed a chat too!

Banner image: Karolina Grabowska via Pexels
February 26, 2021

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