- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

NEW YORK

In bleak nursing homes and vibrant college dorms, in crowded cities and spread-out suburbs, Americans confront an ailment with no single cause or cure.Some call it social isolation or disconnectedness. Often, it’s just plain loneliness.

An age-old ailment, to be sure, and yet by various measures — census figures on one-member households, a study documenting Americans’ shrinking circle of intimate friends — it is worsening.

It seems ironic, even to those who are affected. The nation has never been more populous, soon to reach the 300 million mark. And it has never been more connected — by phone, e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, etc.

Yet so many are alone in the crowd.

“People are increasingly busy,” said Margaret Gibbs, a psychologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in northern New Jersey. “We’ve become a society where we expect things instantly and don’t spend the time it takes to have real intimacy with another person.”

Some Americans are making a new commitment, getting reconnected in groups or one-on-one and combating a phenomenon that can take a heavy toll on communities and people.

In its most pronounced forms, loneliness is considered a serious, even life-threatening condition, heightening the risks of heart disease and depression. A sense of isolation can strike at almost any age, in any demographic sector: parents struggling to adjust to empty-nest status, divorcees unable to rebuild a social life, even seemingly self-confident college students.

John Powell, a psychologist at the University of Illinois counseling center, says it’s common for incoming freshmen to stay in their rooms, chatting by computer with high school friends rather than venturing out to get-acquainted activities on campus.

“The frequency of contact and volume of contact does not necessarily translate into the quality of contact,” Mr. Powell said.

The trend toward isolation surfaced in the 2000 census figures, which show that one-fourth of the nation’s households — 27.2 million of them — consisted of just one person, compared with 10 percent of households in 1950.

In June, an authoritative study in the American Sociological Review found that the average American had only two close friends in whom they would confide on important matters, down from an average of three in 1985. The number of people who said they had no such confidant soared from 10 percent in 1985 to nearly 25 percent in 2004, and 19 percent said they had only one confidant — often their spouse.

“That may be the most worrisome thing,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who co-authored the study. “If you lose that one person, because the relationship declines or the person dies, you have no one to support you. If we’re all becoming more dependent on our spouse or partner for that kind of complete knowing of each other, we’re all vulnerable to losing that.”

The study suggested an array of causes — including an increase in working/commuting hours and expanding use of the Internet to stay in touch with other people, reducing the need for face-to-face contacts.

“We e-mail each other rather than calling or meeting, so there can be a sense of connection but also a loss of actual time spent with friends and families,” Miss Gibbs said.

Some Americans shrug off the trend, content with their ever-evolving social circles. Others, though, are unsettled at what they see and feel, and search for remedies.

Karina Penaranda was at Mass in 2002 when it dawned on her that her peers at her Roman Catholic church in Phoenix — single adults ages 35 to 60 — had no fixed place in the diocese’s social orbit.

“There were groups for elderly people, marriage encounters for couples — and youth groups are everywhere,” said Miss Penaranda, who is in her 40s. “Once single people reach this age, they don’t have a community. They don’t really have a place to go where they can share their hopes and dreams.”

With a few other parishioners, Miss Penaranda founded a group called Catholic Singles Ministry. It now draws scores of people from across the Phoenix area and beyond to biannual retreats and to events ranging from prayer breakfasts to bowling nights to food-bank volunteer work.

“We have people who’ve been divorced, been widowed, never been married,” she said. “At our retreats, we talk about loneliness, relationships. … You know that you’re not alone in going through this journey.”

Having a spouse and children doesn’t insulate adults from bouts of loneliness; one particularly vulnerable subset are parents confronting the empty-nest syndrome as their children reach young adulthood and leave home.

“Some take it really, really hard,” said Jeanine Herrin of Inglis, Fla., who created an Internet chat room called Empty Nest Moms. “That’s all they did — they lived and breathed kids, and all of the sudden the kids are gone.”

She noted that many such parents had a network of adults they knew through their children’s activities — a network that can shrink or vanish when the children leave.

“Some moms are almost basket cases when they come into our group,” Mrs. Herrin said. “But with most of them, you can feel that sense of relief that they’re not really going crazy, that there are so many others feeling the same way.”

If some empty-nest parents feel a void in their lives, so do some of their absent children.

“A lot of students go through periods of loneliness,” said Zanny Altschuler, 20, of Menlo Park, Calif., who is completing her freshman year this summer at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

“The social life on campus can be crazy,” she said. “Rather than sticking with close friendships that can be hard to maintain, people forge a broader circle of acquaintances.”

Miss Altschuler cited the phenomenon of Facebook.com, the social-networking Web site on which students can enumerate their “friends.”

“You go on some profiles and they say they have 1,000 friends, and they probably don’t even know half of them,” she said.

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