The holiday season is so focused on giving and community that we're forced to reflect on our own relationships and connections.
If you're feeling isolated, you're not alone. There is an epidemic of loneliness across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk for heart disease, stroke and dementia. The U.S. surgeon general put out an advisory this year on the healing effects of social connection.
There's a small but growing initiative from a nonprofit in Massachusetts called the Friendship Project that has found great success.
Around this time last year, Mary McCarthy was paired with Diane Duncan through the project.
"I was pretty lonely living by myself," McCarthy said. "I'm retired, so I like to get outside in nature and enjoy that with someone. I look at it like sharing my life with a new person that I call my friend now."
They've slowly been growing a one-on-one connection.
"Mary and I both share a love of nature," Duncan said. "And that was one of the first things that I noticed, that Mary often during the course of her day will take pictures of nature and notice things, and that kind of rubs off on me which is really great."
Jeffrey Keilson is the senior vice president of the nonprofit behind the initiative called Advocates.
He says he hopes to inspire a call for action across the country to help end the loneliness epidemic.
He's noticed the friendship project impacting not just the people involved, but also the caregivers.
"For a family caregiver who's under a lot of stress and caring for their loved one with a disability, this gives them some respite, gives them some thankfulness that their loved one is connected with someone," Keilson said.
If you wish to start a similar initiative, Keilson recommends these four things:
- Hire a friendly volunteer coordinator who can recruit people to get involved.
- Make local connections with other businesses, colleges, and faith communities.
- Set up activities for people involved in the program.
- Look at many local, state and federal sources for funding.