Modern-day loneliness: There is a personal and a universal aspect of loneliness


By AGENCY

While being alone, or solitude, is an important component of well-being, loneliness is a lingering and persistent social isolation, often involuntary, and sometimes even when we are surrounded by people. Photo: TNS/Dreamstime

Two friends take turns on alternating mornings making eggs and toast for me.

They straighten my bed, wash my linens and take out the trash.

They go to the grocery store, fill the bird feeder, water the plants and make lunch and enough food for dinner.

They talk and laugh and share life with me, from 9am to 3pm.

At which point, I am alone.

For two-thirds of the day, until 9 the next morning, there’s no guarantee I will see another human.

Certainly, I will not suffer from lack of food or physical care. Despite health and mobility issues that require this outside help, I am capable when I am alone of getting up and warming the food they made, getting myself to the bathroom and other necessary self care.

What I will suffer from is loneliness.

This is different than being alone. Solitude is an important component of well-being that I relish, a state of peacefulness, psychologists say, allowing for self-reflection without added influence.

Loneliness is another thing, defined as lingering and persistent social isolation, often involuntary, and sometimes even when we are surrounded by people.

It has become a mainstay in my upturned life – and an epidemic worldwide.

Social scientists have long known loneliness as part of the human condition. But what with Covid quarantines, community breakdown, remote work and social media taking the place of face-to-face interaction and true presence, the preponderance of loneliness has exploded, leading health officials to call loneliness a public health crisis.

In my case, ill health, the empty nest, separation, divorce and the death of my husband, all coming in a small space of time, flattened my ready-made opportunities for community.

I joined one in every two adults experiencing measurable loneliness, according to US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, who conducted a cross-country “listening tour” to find people feeling isolated, invisible and insignificant.

“Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word ‘lonely,’ time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, ‘I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself,’ or ‘If I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice’,” Murthy wrote in his 2023 advisory, the “Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community”.

This lack of connection doesn’t just present as an emotional problem. Nor is this a problem relegated to those who are ageing. Rather it is a problem with serious health effects, to include heart disease and stroke, diabetes, depression, dementia and early death. The most affected population: Young people, especially caught up with social media that keeps them from meaningful relationships, and lacking community opportunities in general, including in places of worship, within the family and in a physical workplace.

The surgeon general has joined countries around the world in calling for every facet of society to engage in a cure for social isolation and loneliness. Recommendations range from the simple to the complex, from each organisation dedicating itself to kindness, respect, service and commitment, to a rethinking of infrastructure that considers social connection when laying out cities and building transportation systems.

There are things we – I – can do individually, of course, says Murthy.

“Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone. Perform an act of service. Express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful.”

We can engage in the common rules of courtesy and communication that are more important than ever: Listening when people are talking, looking them in the eye when they are speaking, really being present to them.

We can’t go it alone. We can do what we can to help ourselves. We can ask others to practise with us. We can also be sensitive to others who are isolated.

I think of my mother who taught me what I know about being a survivor, who yet lived her last years alone, in ill health and poverty.

I called her as often as I could.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have called her every day.

Maybe more.

I would have listened. – Tribune News Service/Debra-Lynn B. Hook


Debra-Lynn B. Hook (debralynnhook.com) of Kent, Ohio, the United States, has been writing about family life since 1988.

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Solitude , loneliness , social isolation

   

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