In a society where we have never been so connected on a superficial level through social media, loneliness is on the rise. In my view, there is something about how caught up we are in consumerism and in our mobile phones, that turns us away from each other. We are far less likely than previous generations to know our neighbours or to drop into each other for a chat. Despite this, we may be friends on Facebook with people we barely speak to. According to the Trinity College Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, loneliness can be present at all life stages and is most frequently reported here among people aged seventy-five or older. 45% of this age group reported feeling lonely often or some of the time.
The late British MP Jo Cox devoted much of her political energies to addressing this issue in her country. Her work led, after her death, to the appointment of a Minister with special responsibility for loneliness. While this was never going to be more than window dressing in a Tory government, the idea is worth considering here if we are to build a compassionate society that looks after our most vulnerable.
While solitude can be bliss, we are social animals by nature and need meaningful contact with others almost as much as we need food or water. Being deprived of such contact for long periods of time leads to chronic loneliness – a sickness of the soul which robs life of colour and meaning. It is for this reason that solitary confinement is, for prisoners who are threatened with it, such a feared punishment.
The impact of loneliness
Chronic loneliness has a major impact on our physical as well as our mental health. It damages our immune systems and has been linked with increased risk of heart disease, cognitive decline and premature death. When I volunteered with the Samaritans in my twenties it was the most common and debilitating issue affecting callers. I remember many epic calls on overnight shifts with people who were at their minds’ limits from dealing with loneliness. I have seen through my work as a psychologist that prolonged disconnection from others can push a depressed person into suicidal despair.
The greatest antitode to loneliness is true connection with other people or with animals. For many people, pets are their most valued companions. Fostering social connection is the hallmark of a strong community. In East Cork, services such as Cumann na Daoine in Youghal or the McAuley Day Care Centre for Older Adults in Midleton are invaluable in this regard. These supports help people to connect with others and to find meaning in shared activity. Local choirs, Tidy Towns Committees and Men’s Sheds bind people together in a similar way through a shared sense of purpose.
Mothers on maternity leave who are living far from extended family are particularly vulnerable to loneliness. The intensity of being with a baby all day for months on end, often with limited sleep, can take an immense toll on a mother’s well-being. Mother and baby groups such as those run by Cuidiú in Midleton and Cobh can be a vital source of support and connection at such times. These community assets can be better supported by investment from government – investments that will give back far more than they cost.
Valuing our elders
If we are to fully value our elders and protect them from the scourge of loneliness we need to radically change the running of our nursing homes. While some nursing homes provide residents with varied activities and sufficient time with staff, many are lacking in stimulation and offer only care in a basic, mechanical sense. This failure to meet residents’ social and emotional needs is an injustice that must be addressed by government policy and oversight. Our nursing homes should be mini-commnities, where people can go on being challenged, making connections and working towards meaningful goals.
The Trinity College study mentioned earlier showed that older adults who engaged in voluntary work and leisure pursuits had enhanced life satisfaction and better health outcomes than less active peers. For isolated older adults living at home or in care we can all ensure that they remain valued members of our community despite whatever age-related limitations they come up against.
Staying connected throughout our lives
The famous British psychologist John Bowlby highlighted the importance of a young child’s relationship with her parents or parent figures for her future mental health and development. This core need to relate remains with us throughout our lives. We are all dependent on others, and therein lies much of our potential for happiness and our vulnerability to suffering. At particular times such as anniversaries or at Christmas we experience these attachments, or the loss of them, more intensely than ever. How we look out for each other at such times will be the true measure of our society.
Liam Quaide is a Clinical Psychologist and a Green Party election candidate in East Cork