‘Forget sex, or politics or religion – loneliness is the subject that clears out a room’: so says Douglas Coupland a novelist who knows a thing or two about our postmodernist society having popularised the terms ‘Generation X’ and ‘McJob’. Such is the stigma attached to loneliness that even people who are trying to tackle the issue often feel they dare not even mention the ‘L-word’ to the people they’re trying to help.
Nobody agrees what this filthy old swear word even means. I’ve come across 10 separate definitions in the numerous research reports I’ve eaten over the last few days. Mish-mashed together they seem to say: loneliness describes the negative feelings felt due to the lack of a close emotional attachment with a partner or friend and/or the absence of a broad and engaging social group of friends, neighbours and colleagues. And it’s not to be confused with social isolation which refers to separation from social or familial contact, and community involvement. The happy hermit who chooses solitude would not be considered lonely though social isolation is the key risk for loneliness.
Are you lonesome tonight?
What’s so strange about the taboo of loneliness is it’s such a common 21st century ill that cuts across all age groups. Evolution suggests we’re designed to live together in close communities and sociology that we thrive in close co-operation with each other yet in the modern world we often chose to live and work in a way that isolates us from each other. We’re all obsessed with the ‘cult of busyness’ often to the neglect of our family and social ties. Work can help us feel connected but if our working hours are too long social ties can suffer as we slump on the sofa to recover.
Lots of factors are also conspiring to erode our sense of community: it could be the closure of the local post office or the village pub or the decline of the working men’s clubs; all are social places that bring different generations together. The great urbanisation trend that began decades ago means that friends, family and neighbours often move far away or migrate, eroding our social connections.
The rise of home entertainment and the internet reduces socialising and face to face contact outside the home. So technology can certainly help to keep us connected, but it’s face to face contact which stimulates the production of that lovely hormone oxytocin which makes us more sympathetic, supportive and open with our feelings: all of which helps us feel connected and guards against loneliness – you won’t get any oxytocin dished up with your ‘Likes’ and hashtags. So there you have it: in the Western world we may have got richer over the last few decades but we’re definitely no happier because we’ve become more isolated and hence lonelier.
The loneliness landmines of ageing
Against that backdrop, is it any wonder that loneliness is a growing and serious problem across all age groups? But when you consider the long list of hazardous transitions that need to be negotiated in later life it’s obvious why loneliness is a bigger problem for older people: retirement and the loss of identity, busyness and social value; loss of family members, friends and neighbours through bereavement or them moving away; loss of physical health and/or mental health and sensory impairment; becoming an informal carer or the admission of a loved one into care; developing your own care needs and/or moving into care and the loss of your familiar home.
All in older age is a time when you can spend increased time alone: 3.8m people or 36% of those over 65 in the UK live alone. And let’s not forget people who are childless, never married or the growing number of older divorcees. But don’t make assumptions about people with family and their risks of loneliness: having children but not being close to them or even living with family has seen higher reported levels of loneliness.
All these loneliness landmines lead to a loss of social and emotional connection yet older age is a time when there are fewer remedies available to cope with them: lower income, lower mobility and fewer social opportunities are added to a climate of ageism which segregates older people. Societal ills such as crime and antisocial behaviour and a lack of amenities such as public toilets, even pavements and good transport links can also keep older people indoors and alienated.
Frankly, if you’re ‘old’ and not feeling lonely then congratulations to you! But more to the point there are so many very common risk factors that contribute to loneliness as we grow older that we should be warning people about it in the same way we do about cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes and dementia, given the debilitating effect of loneliness on health and wellbeing. Even the stigma of mental ill health is starting to break down as awareness campaigns gain traction. So what is it with this big taboo about loneliness anyway?
The Loneliness Taboo
Social neuroscience suggests that if our expectations around relationships aren’t being met our body feels physically threatened. If loneliness persists we start to lose the ability to regulate the emotions that we associate with loneliness: in time this alters the ‘social cognition’ which enables us to interpret our interactions with others. This distorts the way we perceive ourselves in relation to others and may lead us to withdraw from engaging in social support leading to greater isolation. Throughout evolution social bonds have been essential to our survival as to outsmart predators we needed to evolve for increased co-operation: as social animals our ancestors got better and better at interpreting signals from others so their genes could survive. The initial pangs of loneliness then remind us to seek out the company of others to fulfil this basic need and prevent chronic loneliness.
Could this bit of science explain the taboo of loneliness and why people may seek to conceal or deny it? If you lose your ability to form social bonds you’re now useless to the survival of the species so you’re a loser to be shunned? Other suggestions are that the lonely person offends a society that prides itself on self-reliance. Could the science explain why some research suggests that loneliness is contagious and occurs in social clusters: lonely people spread their feelings of loneliness through social networks and the spread of loneliness is stronger than the spread of perceived social connection. Blimey if loneliness is a contagious disease no wonder there’s a taboo and people conceal that they’re infected!
When did compassion go out the window?
If we’re getting lonelier as a society and loneliness is contagious we’d better start doing something about it for all of our sakes. So let’s ramp up the compassion and all get involved in pulling people from the lonely margins into the centre. Let’s start issuing loud warnings about the risks of loneliness. Let’s start breaking down the taboo by talking about it. Professionals in the ageing space need to be shouting from the rooftops about these issues, to break the taboo of loneliness, rather than walking on eggshells around it. This is why we’re asking the following awkward question in our June 2015 #TeapotTravels competition:
Are professionals in the ageing space reinforcing the taboo of loneliness?
A recent poll of UK GPs found that 36% of doctors didn’t think loneliness made a significant contribution to early death and only 28% thought that Clinical Commissioning Groups should be responsible for commissioning services to alleviate or prevent loneliness. We need to get GPs more on side with this issue. Let’s start trampling on those eggshells: the Dutch held a campaign 5 years ago to raise awareness about the risks and taboos of loneliness and the ways to overcome the pitfalls. Time for one in the UK I’d say. So here’s a start: hands up if you’ve ever felt lonely! (Gosh typing with one hand really is quite inefficient!). Of course I flipping well have, and I’m not to blame or a saddo to be ignored because of it thank you.
Anyone else up to raising their hand?
Do we need a hashtag? How about: #feelinglonelyiscompletelynormal. OK, that’s a bit long – alternatives any one?