It has been called a silent epidemic, hidden within every family and community. It affects all ages, including those who have people all around them. It blights millions of lives and yet many people find it hard to admit to being lonely, even to themselves.
A cross-party commission has been set up in memory of the murdered MP, Jo Cox, with the aim of raising public and political awareness of loneliness. Under the slogan ‘Start A Conversation’, it hopes to mobilise people to help themselves, educating people on how they can become the remedy, whether it’s talking to a neighbour, visiting an old friend or just making time for people they meet.
MP Seema Kennedy is heading the commission on loneliness, a cross party parliamentary group called ’Start a conversation’. The ageing population is the most obvious age group, but young people, parents and disabled people also suffer. The commission will look at different groups of society to look at different schemes.
BBC Radio 4 invited people to call in to talk about how loneliness effects them. The calls, conversations and emails were broadcast on ‘You and Yours’. A caller in her early 50’s, single, no kids with small family background finds that her friends are generally occupied with their on lives and family and she feels that she is out of touch with them. She feels loneliness more acutely at night, when the thoughts of ‘being on my own for the rest of my life’ and worries about the level of care that older people receive these days. She admits that she is prone to anxiety because of these 2am thoughts. Another caller has plenty of family, but is also the carer for 2 young adult children with medical conditions. She is on call 24 hours, and this intrudes into her ability to find meaningful friendships, she points out that she had organised a meal with a friend, but had to leave abruptly as she had to attend to an issue related to her work – this placed a seed of doubt in her mind on whether her friend would want to continue this friendship as this kind of thing could happen again. She does have people around her, but she craves a relationship outside of her close family circle to be herself.
Another caller has confessed that she has a different type of loneliness, she calls it an ‘emotional loneliness’. She has a full social life, with her garden and pets but has perhaps suggested that the perception of happy families and a full life is not quite enough for some people. It may be a high expectation, but people often compare their lives with each other.
A retired male caller feels like they’re no longer needed and been left out of society. He suggests that voluntary work, keeping fit and reading all help but loneliness is always there at the end of the day. He agreed that men find this more difficult to talk about loneliness, with the stigma that they do not want to admit to this and giving way to a weakness.
Another male who responded via email simply needs a person to share their life with, to connect with emotionally. Another person wrote in to say that they live with someone who doesn’t communicate at all, she jokingly suggested that at least if she was by herself she could daydream or talk to herself. The loneliness of a bad marriage is the not the first thing you think of, but it can be terrible if you with a person who doesn’t share any common interests. There was one example of the passing of a husband resulted in a lady being moved to sheltered housing, which helped open up their social circle and as a result she started to enjoy life again.
A lady in her ‘young’ 80’s has a problem connecting with her family emotionally and misses her friend who recently passed away. She feels that there needs to be groups who can encourage more social activities and experiences, this is a real issue in some remote areas. But sometimes new groups are hard to break into, especially when established friendships have been formed.
What is quite surprising is the number of people who have large families but still feel lonely, due to the hectic nature of organising activities and assumptions that older relatives do not want to get involved. Divorce, bereavement, bullying, unemployment, moving to a new area, self employment and children leaving home can lead to days without having proper conversations.
There is a perception that the digital age has stopped people from going out and meeting real people, things like social media or online banking has made our lives easier, especially convenient for those who cannot spare the time, but it can also provide a conduit to open up new friendships, particularly in the case of social media. Online banking is not a substitution for the real thing, as the option of talking a bus and walking to the bank is for the time being, still a popular option. Social media is not quite as fulfilling as a face to face experience, and things can easily get lost in the typing but the use of technologies like Skype help counter balance this.
Dr Mark Atkinson is a research psychologist at Exeter University and suggests that the definition of loneliness is what you want from your social relationships. It’s not anything to do with the actual number of social relationship you have but the quality you attach to them. Things are always being oversold to us, so we may expect too much from life, perhaps being perpetuated by this social media age. Big changes in peoples lives, like university, marriage, death, loss of a job etc can trigger off loneliness, especially if you are thrust into a new environment. If there is a barrier to leaving the house or you are new to an area then social media can be hugely beneficial as a way to communicate to the outside world. However if you compare this to someone in an unhappy marriage, financial or health issues, then social media can have a more negative effect, as everyone on facebook appear to be having a wonderful time! There is a huge diversity of people who are all feeling the same thing though but the good thing is that more research and help is available, as the population becomes older the more likely that there will be ways to help.
English languages courses being set up for those who use English as a second language. There has been an incentive to visit care homes to facilitate this, and could be spread out into the wider community. The person giving out the language lesson not only feels like their skills are being used but also helps to combat the issue. The Australian ‘Men in shed’s has become something of global phenomenon, where people get together and share their skills in allotments, opening up the opportunity for people to learn new skills and again to feel useful and valued by others.
Solutions to combating this issue are out there. It seemingly depends on what you are trying to achieve. A common way is to invest time into owning a pet and it can also build up your self-esteem. Another example is to approaching people directly, to start a direct conversation and build friendships, this is especially valid in rural areas. Using the theme of a book, board game or arts club, people can develop friendships which can go into any direction! A lady who had the nouse to set this up also noticed that some older people did not have grandchildren and looked into ways of developing inter-generational friendships in an informal way, by using common interests. The final caller is a partially disabled man who never went out and had spent the last seven years looking after his wife. He feels that some people sign themselves up to loneliness. He keeps himself occupied with his interests, studying, television, cooking and reading. He makes an effort to keep in touch with his old colleagues and former sparring sports partners. A lady who had separated from their husband and lost her social circle to look after her children, found that volunteering helped with her confidence. She also made a point that she became less strange as a person to other people. This explained that people are strange if they’re strangers, the more you feel isolated the more you feel strange. The final email to the show inspired a lady to put up a message in her post office simply saying ‘Lonely people? Lets meet up!’