By some estimates, adults who live alone have an 80 percent higher chance of having depression than those who live with other people. Add illness to the equation, meaning people living alone and dealing with chronic or temporary illness, and you have an even greater chance of depression. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of depression is by remaining physically and socially active.
Loneliness can be a strong contributor to depression. One study found that one in every four women living alone had purchased antidepressants versus only one in 10 women not living alone. A study of college students also found a strong association between loneliness and depression.
Keeping relationships active when living alone, especially if dealing with decreased mobility associated with illness, can be challenging.
An eight year study of loneliness in chronically ill patients examined 120 adults every two years, measuring the participants’ feelings of loneliness, severity of their illnesses, how they dealt with their health, and the impact of their actions on their health. The study, not surprisingly, found a strong correlations between loneliness and chronic illness–the chronically ill are much more likely to experience loneliness than non-chronically ill adults.
One factor studied was self-blame. The study found that older adults who tended to blame themselves for their chronic illnesses fared more poorly in their overall health. In addition to increasing negative feelings, self-blame was also found to suppress immune system functionality, leading to a downward spiral in mental and physical health.
Weight gain and diet can also contribute to loneliness, isolation, and depression. Eating healthy and shedding excess weight can improve self-esteem and reduce the risk of more serious depression. Researchers have found that people who live alone tend to eat a less diverse diet, but also eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Diets high in the nutrients and antioxidants found in fresh produce have been found to improve moods.
When dealing with reduced mobility, it can be helpful to access resources designed for people living alone. Senior centers, support groups, mental health agencies, and other organizations often have programs designed to help people living alone, with or without illness, to remain socially active. Many include transportation. Online resources can help too. Connecting with friends and family on social networks, keeping in touch with video calling services like FaceTime and Skype can help people stay connected. Online support groups and user forums can also provide access to people and information.
Exercise is another way to fight loneliness. Physical activity increases dopamine, the chemical in our brains that boost feelings of pleasure. Exercise also leads to feelings of accomplishment. Exercises can be challenging if dealing with illness or physical restrictions, but there are options. Walking, of course, is recommended. But if walking isn’t an option, chair exercises and stretching can be helpful. Water exercises can be extremely helpful for people dealing with physical impairments, as they enable a freedom of movement not always possible on land.
One of the hardest parts of living alone and staying healthy is taking the initiative to reach out and get active. While self-blame is proven to be damaging, so is self-pity. Many recommend reaching out to others in the form of volunteering, mentoring, or supporting people with similar conditions. This can also be done online and can be a great source of satisfaction and accomplishment.