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A Public Health Crisis: Preventing Loneliness in Chronic Illness

Living Well

June 30, 2023

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Photography by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

Photography by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

by Hailey Hudson


Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD


by Hailey Hudson


Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD


Loneliness is more prevalent than ever — especially for people with chronic or invisible illnesses. Even when it feels difficult or impossible, here’s how you can stay socially connected.

If you live with a chronic illness, you likely know that loneliness is often an unexpected side effect. A chronic illness is a long lasting or permanent condition that requires ongoing medical treatment or limits activities of daily living. Examples include Crohn’s disease, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and many other conditions.

And when your days are filled with attending doctor’s appointments, feeling too crummy to socialize, and constantly explaining your condition when you do make it out, it’s really no surprise that loneliness and chronic illness go hand in hand.

But now, this problem is becoming more prevalent than ever. The United States Surgeon General released an advisory in May 2023 calling attention to “the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.”

If you’re living with a chronic illness, it can be helpful to create your own strategy for staying connected with others and preventing loneliness as much as possible. Take a look at why this is so important, as well as some accessible ideas to try.

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The relationship between loneliness and chronic illness

People who live with chronic illness often feel the impact of isolation more than those without a chronic condition. Illness-related factors that can contribute to loneliness include:

  • being unable to socialize due to symptoms, fatigue, or pain
  • losing friends as a result of your illness
  • missing out on school, work, and hobbies
  • feeling as if nobody understands your condition and your lifestyle
  • managing a schedule crowded with medical appointments or hospitalizations

If your illness is mostly or entirely invisible, this can lead to even more feelings of isolation as you try to explain what’s going on in your body. And since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people with chronic illnesses have found that their loneliness has gotten even worse as they have continued to be conscientious about keeping their already-fragile bodies safe.

Even when you’re feeling relatively well, it can be hard to socialize. Chronic illness is often unpredictable, and our society isn’t set up to accommodate it. Fear of stigma or ableism might keep you at home. Or you may find that every ounce of your limited energy goes into school or work, with nothing left over for a social life.

Consequences of loneliness

Long-term loneliness can be a serious issue. The report from the Surgeon General stated that for older adults especially, the physical health consequences of a lack of connection include:

  • 29% increased risk of heart disease
  • 32% increased risk of stroke
  • 50% increased risk of developing dementia

A lack of social connection also increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%. And loneliness and isolation increase the risk of mental health conditions such as depression, creating a vicious cycle.

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Tips on preventing loneliness with a chronic illness

When symptoms and appointments dictate your life, it can feel nearly impossible to increase your social connection. But doing so is crucial for your mental and emotional health. Here are a few accessible ideas to try.

Start small

If the thought of ramping up your social life feels overwhelming, it’s OK to start small and take off the pressure, thinking in terms of acquaintances instead of best friends. Even “micro-interactions,” such as waving at your mailman or thanking a cashier, can give you a boost of connection.

Send someone a message on social media instead of passively scrolling, or go to a coffee shop on your next low-symptom day so you can be around people even if you aren’t directly speaking with them. These simple actions can have a bigger impact than you might think.

Find a community

Connecting with people who also live with chronic illness can stave off loneliness by reminding you that you aren’t the only one. Look for a support group run by a hospital or nonprofit — your doctor may have ideas. Or search online for a community similar to Bezzy. You’ll find countless social media groups, forums, and Zoom events created for people who live with certain conditions or chronic illness in general (including those who don’t have a diagnosis).

As you spend time with people who have similar experiences, it will become easier to articulate and explain your condition to people who aren’t sick.

Adopt a pet

Animals can help reduce stress and loneliness, and pet ownership is associated with lower levels of social isolation in adults. A pet is great company and can help you feel loved and needed.

If you can, consider adopting a pet. If you can’t put a lot of effort into caring for a pet due to your physical symptoms, look into a low-maintenance pet such as an adult cat. Or see if you can do any of the following from time to time:

  • care for or visit a friend’s or neighbor’s pet
  • visit a cat cafe
  • volunteer for low-energy tasks at a local humane society
  • visit a dog show, dock diving competition, or other pet-related event

Find a therapist

A therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional can help you navigate the mental and emotional side of chronic illness, including thoughts like “My illness makes me unworthy of friendship” and “Connection isn’t worth it.”

Look for a therapist who specifically focuses on clients with chronic illness. Ask your doctor for suggestions or search online. If you cannot pay for therapy, look into sliding-scale options or services offered by a nonprofit or community center.

Stay in touch

Remember, your social connections don’t always have to be big. If you can make it out for a night on the town, great! But if not, make sure you’re still doing something to stay in touch with the people you love.

Use email, social media platforms, phone calls, texting, or whatever communication method works for you. Planning video calls ahead of time might work best for one chronically ill person’s symptoms and schedule, while answering text messages on their own time could be better for somebody else.

Think about the options that are most accessible to you, and tell your family and friends that you want to intentionally catch up with them on a regular basis. Connecting with others as best you can will help you feel less isolated, even during flare-ups.

The bottom line

People are important. We need each other. We can’t live without each other. And even when it feels difficult or impossible, fighting for social connection is worth it.

Use these ideas to work around your chronic illness as you prioritize connection over isolation. Your body and mind will thank you.

Medically reviewed on June 30, 2023

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About the author

Hailey Hudson

Hailey Hudson is a freelance writer and content marketer based out of Atlanta, Georgia, who writes primarily in the medical/healthcare, marketing, education, and pet industries. She lives with multiple chronic illnesses that significantly affect her life every day. As her health allows, Hailey enjoys reading, tap dancing, and writing letters to pen pals. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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