Last Saturday, The Nottingham Post carried an article about the forthcoming Loneliness Awareness Week (20th - 26th June), being organised by the Charity, Friends of the Elderly. The Charity describe this 'Isolation Week' as, "a social experiment that will see ten members of the public experience social isolation as if they were themselves an isolated older person - by being confined to their own homes for a whole week without any human contact, and with only the TV for company. The participants will also use special equipment such as gloves and vision-impairing glasses to help them experience the effects of physical ageing.
Each day, the participants will record their feelings via a video diary and one-way Twitter accounts that will be able to be viewed here (http://www.isolationweek.co.uk/ ). Their experiences will then be analysed by social researchers specialising in the issues facing older people, with the findings used to raise awareness of the debilitating effects of social isolation, and to encourage communities to be more proactive with the older people around them".
No one pretends that a week can give a detailed insight into what many experience for weeks, months and even years at a time. But it will help, as the Charity says, "to raise awareness of the effects of social isolation".
However, while the focus here is on the elderly, it must never be forgotten that loneliness is not the special preserve of the elderly, as it can strike people of all ages. The theme of loneliness has been captured in song and poetry for many years. Who can not be moved by the Beatles song, 'Eleanor Rigby', with its haunting strings melody produced by George Martin? Listen to the repeated refrain, and then words about Eleanor,
"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong"?
"Eleanor Rigby died in the Church and was buried along with her name
Also, Maya Angelou, who is fast becoming my favourite American poet, wrote a magnificent piece called 'Alone'. Just like the lyrics of Eleanor Rigby, there is a repeated refrain,
"Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone".
So what is this loneliness that is so important, that the awareness of it needs to be raised? Last year the Mental Health Foundation released a report saying that relationships that are vital to health and well-being are under threat by modern life, which can isolate people from one another and lead to loneliness. UK-wide research carried out for The Lonely Society? shows that one in ten people often feel lonely (11%), and half think that people are getting lonelier in general (48%). More people live alone - the Office of National Statistics says that there are 7.5 million people (half of pensionable age) living alone compared with 4.3 million 15 years ago. The divorce rate has almost doubled in the past 50 years. Because of career opportunities, many people now live further away from their families.
Old-style communities are in decline, and local amenities are being lost. More than 2,500 Post Offices have been closed, and around 5,000 small shops have disappeared in the past six years. Though the rate of Pub closures has slowed down, they are still disappearing at the rate of around 30 a week. All this has had an impact on people for whom they were a focal point, particularly those living on the margins of society and vulnerable to loneliness, such as the elderly, people out of work or those living with a disability.
The above mention research for The Lonely Society? posed the question about technology, was it friend or foe? There is no doubt that technology can facilitate relationships, and can be used to reduce social isolation. However, evidence shows that technology doesn't provide the physical contact that benefits well-being. The Internet and texting has changed the way people communicate, but some experts argue that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter undermine social skills and the ability to read body language. The report says, "Cognitive function improves when a relationship is physical, as well as intellectual, because of the chemical process that takes place during face-to-face communication. This type of interaction produces the hormone oxytocin, which is thought to underpin the link between social contact and healthy hearts". By all means use technology to keep in touch with family and friends, but don't forget that there is no substitute for occasionally seeing a human face, and occasionally hearing a human voice.
Emily was a young, intelligent lawyer who one Friday evening after work found herself doing her usual dawdling. Before long, she found herself at a train station, leaning over the railings watching the commuters below.
"Although I didn't know any of the people I was seeing, I felt that I had some sense of how their evenings were going to unfold. The leisurely pace and the look of relaxation on many faces spoke of home lives, of boarding a train to meet a wife, or boyfriend, or best friend. And I realised that my life was not like that. I had no one to visit, no one to return home to, and, suddenly, my daily after-work loitering assumed a different hue. I hadn't been dawdling, I'd been avoiding something - my inevitable return to an empty flat, and to a weekend that offered nothing in the way of company". She details her life, later quitting her job and deciding to write a book.
"Yet when I first mentioned I was writing a book about the subject of chronic loneliness, many people would ask me: 'Why?' It's as if people don't feel that loneliness is real - at least, not in the same way that depression or bipolar disorder are real. It's trivial, so I've been told; shameful, irrelevant. My own loneliness tells me that this is not the case".
"It wasn't that lonely people lacked social skills, but rather that they had good skills, but somehow found themselves cut off from using them".
In the end, she found a strong connection in her life. She joined a basketball team and met her partner there. "That's not to say my loneliness has gone. It's just different. I'm more shy than before my loneliness hit; I'm more hesitant in engaging with others; I'm less showy. I can't say I'll never be lonely again, just that if it comes again, I'll be prepared".
A summary of her story was included in the Daily Mail, and could also be read on their on-line edition. Comments from readers were from the understanding and sympathetic, to the quite frankly mad. Too many fell into this category. For example, someone from Portsmouth wrote, "This seems all very self-centred, why not go out and help someone, volunteer for something, stop the me-me-me syndrome. The writer needs to learn to love her own company, and get out there and mingle". Understanding the problem, or what?
This comment from 'charming of Portsmouth' resonated with me. I've been living on my own now for over a dozen years- the reasons for which are entirely of my own making. Most of the time I'm alone, but not lonely. I don't mind my own company, and try to go out and do something every day. I have a great family of grown up boys, and am emotionally close to my sister. I've never been very good at making friends, but the small number I call friends are cherished. However, I do on rare occasions get short bouts of loneliness, which last no longer than a few hours- so nothing like the chronic loneliness that Emily White writes about. I've been given unsolicited advice by friends when I've been stupid enough to be honest, that I should get out more, join this society or that, become a volunteer etc etc, as if feelings of loneliness can be switched off as easily as switching off the light. But for me, it's not a problem, as 99% of the time I'm comfortable with my life, get to see lots of things in Nottingham, communicate with my family, and bore the pants off people with my Blogs and Family Heritage. Unlike many for whom chronic loneliness is a problem, and there seems to be few people around to understand them.
So I very much hope that Isolation Week is a great success, and that many more people become aware of the issues around loneliness for all ages, but particularly for the elderly. This awareness should then breed understanding, and a desire to watch out for those in their family who may be susceptible to loneliness.
"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured". - Kurt Vonnequt