Loneliness is a subject I know something about because I have experienced it, sometimes along with depression at the same time. According to Wilkipedia: “Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connectedness or communality with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental or emotional factors.” While I daresay there is a lot more to it than that, and the factors involved may be intricate, it is a condition many experience irrespective of age, social status and circumstance and sometimes by those who are popular and are surrounded by people.
I have been thinking about this subject recently, maybe because I find myself engaging with those sleeping on the streets who really are alone. The popular Ralph McTell song of my youth has more than an element of truth: “So how can you tell me you’re lonely, And say for you that the sun don’t shine? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London Show you something to make you change your mind”. The truth is anyone can be lonely, yet loneliness may be found among those who appear to have everything, and it often proves to be so. Except, for one bright idea in particular and an example of what might be done to help, I will resist trying to pontificate on the causes, consequences and cures of loneliness and suggest if it is killer data you are looking for, in this wonderful age of instant communication via the World Wide Web, it is there in abundance, just waiting to be found.
Two media offerings I came across recently have been my inspiration to write as I now do. The first was a blog article with the title “Isolation and loneliness destroys lives…but we can do something about it“. It began by reflecting on a film where someone was marooned alone on an uninhabited island who invents an imaginary friend he could offload to. As a Christian, I have a friend who isn’t imaginary (although unbelievers may care to dispute this), who I can share all my burdens and find meaning in so many areas, yet I still get lonely as do others who believe similarly to me. The article goes on to share some alarming facts about the extent of loneliness and then considers ways the royal we might be able to do something about it, in particular doing what a befriending charity, supporting isolated older people, does that the writer helped set up.
This brings me nicely to my second example, and it was by listening to one of the features on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which just happened to come up while I was driving but was compelling enough for me not to get out of my car when I reached my destination, as I wanted to listen to the program to the end. The program was about loneliness among the elderly, why it occurs, what the effects are and what might be done. I don’t remember much of the detail but it did have a profound effect on me. For one thing, the problem is widespread, as I have already noted; it does affect people adversely as we might expect, but things can be done to improve matters. Besides what the elderly can do for themselves, and the program gave examples of this, befriending lonely, elderly people and helping them do things for themselves after a little help and encouragement, is something most of us can do.
One thing the program did point out was that many an elderly person that is also mentally aware had once lived active lives – raising and being an important part of a family, doing a responsible job, having all sorts of outlets to interact with others in the community, have all sorts of reasons to get up in the morning, yet now find these things taken away. The result may be isolation, a feeling of not being wanted or having a meaningful role to play in society etc., sometimes being alone for days on end, incapacitated and impoverished, and this may lead to a downward spiral. How different in contrast with some supposedly backward third world communities where the elderly are given respect and honour.
While it may be too big a task to expect to radically transform our own society, every one reading this can give some time to the elderly, particularly to listen and do random small acts of kindness that make such a difference, who can be made to feel wanted and therefore valued and who can find they still have a meaningful role to play by being able to give to the next generation, doing the things they enjoy doing and having their dignity restored. It is a hope and a dream but it can be made a reality if we so allow it, so let us do so.
My bright idea for helping combat loneliness, which is fairly obvious really, is that people need to be made to feel they matter and they are able to give something to their community that is of value. Going back to my first example, the writer cited the Bible text: “God setteth the solitary in families” Psalm 68:6, which struck a personal chord, and just maybe it is something approaching this that is needed such that lonely people can feel they are part of a family that values them!