Loneliness is a hot topic this week. It is highlighted by one of those red letter days when we are programmed into thinking that we must be with an adoring partner – Valentine’s Day. I remember when I was a young adult being terrified by this day as I felt if no-one asked me out then I was a loser. Of course there are all the other days of the year like birthdays, Christmas Day or Easter Sunday when we are meant to be with loved ones and if, for whatever reason, there is no-one special in your life or you have no family, then this can make you feel even lonelier than normal.
Obviously loneliness in the elderly age group is a very big issue. The loneliness epidemic is particularly acute in January. The number of socially isolated older people who reach out to the charity, Contact the Elderly, for support increases dramatically after the festive period. In the past three years, enquiries increased by an average of 86% between December and January.
However I am not just talking about the elderly. In my 20’s I once worked for some time in Tokyo and I remember feeling abject loneliness on a Friday evening because I realised I would not speak to anyone until Monday morning as I had no friends in Japan – clearly none of my Japanese work colleagues wanted to invite me home for a take-away sushi. In those days, 35 years ago, there weren’t the methods of communication we have now. Telephone calls were expensive and it was telex which was the quickest form of communication, but it was only used by businesses. So I had to resort to letter writing. However my young friends back in the UK were busy with their lives and not so good at putting pen to paper.
Last month Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch as, what some are calling, the UK’s first minister for loneliness: the minister for sport and civil society will head a group that aims to tackle the problem. One recent study found that more than nine million adults in the UK are either always or often lonely. A study for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that 35% of men feel lonely at least once a week. And scientists are learning more and more about the damage chronic loneliness does to our bodies: it is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as dangerous as obesity, and increases the likelihood of an early death by 26%.
Most of the young and increasingly many of our age, walk around glued to mobile phones either communicating directly with their friends or indirectly via social media. However they are not taking in who or what is around them and where they are ‘in the moment’. In restaurants people are often glued to their phones or tablets even when they are dining with a friend or partner. I am not denying that I am part of this group. However I recently went into a café, The Good Life Eatery, in Marylebone Lane London – there are other branches in London. The cafe owners have blocked the wifi signal in order to encourage single people to come in on their own and maybe chat to someone similar on a neighbouring table. I met this lovely lady who had just finished a long and exhausting shift at a local hospital as a nurse. We chatted about her work life and I was left feeling even more admiration of the nurses in the NHS and it was so much more rewarding than 30 minutes on Instagram looking at other people’s images of their ‘near perfect’ lives.
I digress. I’m not on a Digital Detox rant this week but rather on an appeal to everyone to put your phones down and look around you and see who is lonely. Maybe someone on the next table has come into a café just for some human contact because they are often on their own. These people come in all shapes and sizes and are not just the obvious, easily identifiable ones. They can be young attractive people who are currently without partners, older people who have lost their family, people living a long way from their home country and/or friends. We are lucky in 2018 that there is so much available in our homes to entertain us – TV, box sets and the internet, but that is not a comfort – just a time-filler. Nothing beats face-to-face company and some enervating conversation.
How to help lonely elderly people:
- Start a conversation. Stop and talk. Don’t hurry them
- Offer practical help, such as shopping, posting a letter, picking up prescriptions or walking their dog
- Offer to accompany them or give them a lift to medical appointments, the library, hairdressers or faith services
- Share your time – volunteer with an organisation that has befriending services matching you with an isolated elderly person for home visits or regular phone calls
- Help with household tasks – offer to take out the rubbish, change light bulbs, clear snow, put up pictures
- Share a meal – take round an extra plate of hot home-cooked food or a frozen portion
…and lonely younger people:
- Reach out. Arrange to meet face to face or talk on the phone
- Encourage people to start conversations, whether a short face-to-face chat or joining an online discussion
- Offer to go to a class or group activity with them
- Suggest they look for talking treatments in their local area to help them manage the mental health effects of loneliness or recommend an online support community like Elefriends
- Listen and don’t make assumptions. People can feel lonely even if it looks like they have a busy and full life
I am spending Valentine’s Day dinner with friends, my husband and my youngest son. The latter may be suffering from No Valentine Syndrome but at least I know he won’t be sitting in his house in London on his own. I am afraid that I fall for the commercialism of Valentine’s Day and always send cards to my husband and my children – I take this day, 14th February, to show them my love.