How Loneliness Affects Adults With Disabilities

Today, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, people are experiencing loneliness more than ever. Because we’re encouraged to physically distance ourselves from one another, businesses deemed non-essential have closed until further notice, and we can’t even visit with friends and family outside of our immediate households, it can be a lonely time.

While some of us thrive with ample alone time, involuntary self isolation––and too much of it––can lead to damaging short and long term side effects. Alone time that evolves into loneliness can result in us feeling “less than human” and promote negative feelings.

These side effects are magnified for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Because of their limited opportunities to engage in social and emotional relationships, people with I/DD often report higher levels of loneliness than people without.

Disability and Loneliness

  • Of young adults with developmental disabilities, 85% say they feel lonely most days.
  • Of the 87% of autistic adults who live with their parents, only 22% want to.
  • Individuals with I/DD have an average of 3.1 people in their social network versus 125 social network members observed in the general population.
  • Marriages occur less frequently than in the general population, and individuals with a severe intellectual disability rarely marry.
  • Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety may be triggered or worsened by loneliness.
  • Loneliness and social isolation reduce life span as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

How Social Media Reduces Loneliness

With Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms, individuals can make friends all over the world. These online interactions help them develop social skills applicable for situations they may encounter in their own physical environment, further moving them toward greater independence. Individuals who develop social skills feel more confident in engaging with others, and are more apt to be involved in the community.

In addition to social media platforms, individuals may also explore YouTube to expand their horizons. YouTube is a free service and can be a great avenue for discovering music videos, how-to-guides, crafts, recipes, exercises, and more. YouTube, along with many other social platforms are increasing measures to protect vulnerable persons including individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

For more information, check out our post, How Social Media can Reduce Feelings of Isolation in Individuals with Disabilities for tips on safety and having a successful social media presence.

Social Isolation and Disability

Unfortunately, emotional isolation and social isolation go hand in hand. People who feel they do not belong in a social group––due to race, class, disabilities, and other criteria––experience social isolation. Because of this, these same individuals often have no intimate, reciprocal relationships, which leads to them experiencing emotional isolation, and ultimately, loneliness.

In a recent review exploring concepts relevant to loneliness, loneliness was broken down to comprise three components (Wang et al., 2016).

Defining Loneliness

  1. A painful experience that arises when there is a discrepancy between the individual’s expectations concerning relationships and his/her actual experience
  2. The perception that an individual’s social and emotional needs are not being met by the quantity and quality of a social relationship
  3. Multidimensional in nature, consisting of both a social and an emotional dimension.

Loneliness is the result of a disconnect. A disconnect between the individual’s expectations and reality, a disconnect between what is and isn’t being met to fulfill emotional needs, and being disconnected from the community on a social and emotional level.

Social integration, therefore, is critical to mend this disconnect. This means individuals with disabilities interacting with other people in their community who may or may not have disabilities. This community integration leads to improvements in quantity and quality of relationships, which reduces loneliness.

Covey’s Role in Battling Loneliness

The most promising way to promote social interactions is through social skill and support-based interventions. Covey is an important resource for individuals with disabilities and their families. Located in Oshkosh and Appleton, Wisconsin, our caring staff is all about empowering our clients to strive toward greater independence and live fulfilling lives. We approach challenges with creativity and compassion, and are invested in helping individuals achieve their potential.

Our clients, their families, and our community all benefit from our services. We offer social development programs and where our clients learn important social skills to empower them to become engaged members of our community. Our respite program is unique and customized to each individual. We work diligently to create an environment where everyone feels valued and accepted, and where clients develop essential relationships with their peers, staff, and volunteers.

We also actively volunteer in our community. Several times a week, Covey participants lend helping hands––and hearts––to animal shelters, assisted living centers, secondhand shops, and more.

Join with Covey, and you’ll join our mission to make the world a more inclusive place. Learn more about who we are––and how you can help––when you visit our Covey Facebook page or