THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Though our need to connect is innate, many of us frequently feel lonely. That sense of discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between the desire for social connection and the actual experiences of such.
That’s how my psychologist friend from Magherafelt defines loneliness. Even some people who are surrounded by others — or are, say, in a long-lasting marriage — still experience a “deep and pervasive loneliness”, and that can pose serious threats to long-term mental and physical health such as cancers, he says.
In a nutshell, loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and, perhaps, unique to each individual. And with it having no single common cause, the prevention and treatment of this potentially damaging state of mind can vary dramatically.
For example, a lonely child who struggles to make friends at school has different needs than a lonely older adult whose other half has recently died.
According to a survey by Specsavers, just landed in my in-tray, many, many older people are loneliest in the summer – as they get fewer visits from loved ones and have more hours in the day to fill. Research in Ireland of 1,400 retired people discovered that 27 per cent feel disconnected when loved ones’ social schedules ramp up, leaving less time for them to check in.
With the country experiencing record temperatures this summer (about to leave soon), 43 per cent admit to struggling in the heat which can cause them to become isolated from their family and friends. Also, 57 per cent think people talk more about loneliness in older people during winter, than in the summer months.
Specsavers Ireland Chairman Kerril Hickey says: “The research has shown there is a hidden issue around loneliness in older people during this period. And with the days being longer, no doubt it can often feel quite a lonely time for many.”
Although she did marry and honeymooned in Ireland, her ancestral home, the novelist Charlotte Bronte once said: “The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”
The late, and controversial, Mother Theresa said: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
Both Alone and dePaul estimate there are up to 400,00 people in Ireland who experience loneliness — that’s one in eight of us. And as the days shorten I doubt loneliness will lessen, despite the Specsavers’ survey.
I would argue that loneliness is different from being alone, and that many older people — already isolated through bereavement, disability or living in the back of beyond — can find their solitary lives decidedly difficult. We are social creatures, and days in unsought isolation makes for an unhealthy life, saps morale and can, sadly, nudge towards depression and mental illness.
Loneliness can be as corrosive as any cancer, says Irish journalist and counsellor Anne Dempsey, author of The Retirement Handbook.
Loneliness, I would add, has a direct correlation with the State’s erosion of local communities and community infrastructure. The rural post office, the bank, the corner shop, the fair and the livestock mart — and now citizen advice bureaus — were all part of the fabric of society, contributing socially as well as commercially to people coming together.
A decline in neighbourliness is another concern. Nobody wants to get involved anymore, as my Auntie May was wont to say, the same Auntie May who told her daughter before she popped her mortal socks that she did not want to lie in the church overnight because “I don’t want the neighbours knowing I have died”.
She was 94.
You should get out more often, get more involved, is something you’ll often hear the younger among us say to older people. However, for some, combating loneliness is not a simple matter of going out and joining a club. Often, what has caused a withdrawal from society has deeper roots including fears, shyness and lack of confidence. Anne Dempsey says addressing these roots is the first step to breaking barriers down.
“This is where you and I come in. Society as a whole has a part to play in combating loneliness. Those of us with an older neighbour, friend or relative living alone could take time to phone or visit,” she says.
A regular half-hour visit could make a wealth of difference in helping someone feel wanted and remembered.
When was the last time you checked on your neighbour — or a relative — who lives alone?