Being over 75 and living in the UK can be a lonely affair. The children left home years ago, you may have outlived your spouse or been the casualty of a relationship breakdown from years back, and your health may not be what it used to be which may affect mobility. It’s no wonder then that loneliness amongst the elderly has, quite rightly, garnered a lot of attention over recent years with charities, local authorities and central government pooling resources in an attempt to counter this growing social crisis.
But what of the younger generations? We’re busy studying, working and raising a family. Besides, we’re adults, we’ve made our friends already, we don’t have time to be lonely, right?
The thing about loneliness is that it’s something that every one of us experiences at some point in our lives. Why? Because it’s a natural human emotion. Not only is it natural, but it is, or at least was, necessary for our survival. Imagine if we didn’t get hunger pains or a signal to our brains telling us that we’re thirsty. Some of us would go for days without eating or drinking. Even when knowing that we must eat and drink to survive, without that pain in the stomach or the parched mouth, our busy lifestyles (or just plain laziness) would mean that some of us would go without being fed or watered until our bodies started to shut down. It would only be then that we realise that it was time to act. Fortunately, our bodies tell us to act a lot sooner than that.
“What has this got to do with loneliness?” I hear you ask. Good question. Well, in days of old, we were a lot more connected than we are now. Don’t get me wrong, we are still hugely dependent on each other (the pandemic has driven that one right up to our doorsteps). Our early ancestors relied on each other to provide food and safety within a group. Operating outside the interests of the group meant compromising its safety. Being excluded from the group, in those days, was likely to lead to an early end. They would have to find food, shelter, protect themselves from opposing groups and wild man-eating animals. A big ask. So, it was necessary to have a real fear of being ostracised, cast out of the group. Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in such a situation, felt it, and it would have been stressful in the extreme. Us humans learnt early on, that being alone is not good.
Today, most of us in the UK don’t have to worry about being eaten by wild man-eating animals, we can buy food at the local supermarket and a great many of us are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads. But where is our group, our tribe? We still need to be connected in order to get food, warm our homes, have our clothes made, but our group is no longer close-knit, instead, it’s anonymous, faceless and often distant. Yet, our survival instinct tells us that we don’t want to be alone, that we have to be a part of a group that we feel that we belong to.
This is where friends and family step in, and thank goodness if you have a close family and a good social network of friends, real friends, with whom you can connect with often. But what if you don’t? What if your family is small, live in a different country, or you just don’t get on with them? What if you don’t have any close friends; those who you can confide in and truly connect with? This is where the hunger pain sets in, except it’s not hunger, it’s loneliness. Hunger compels us to act and the remedy is simple – eat food. What is the remedy for loneliness?
Like with hunger, we ignore loneliness at our peril. Many studies have shown that the stressful impact of loneliness affects our health, and remarkably, just like our ostracised ancestor, this can lead to an early grave.
At least 9 million of us are lonely in the UK. That’s the equivalent of every person living in London or the entire population of Scotland and Wales put together. It’s common, but yet a lot of people are embarrassed about admitting it – until now. The lockdown seems to have legitimised our sense of loneliness in that we are much more open now about admitting that we don’t like being disconnected. This is because we feel that everyone is going through the same thing. It has led to a renewed appreciation of friendship, family and community spirit. This may change the way we talk about feeling alone forever.
So is being lonely cool? No, of course not. It’s painful, even excruciating for some of us. But as a nation we have a better appreciation of what being housebound feels like, or living alone or feeling disconnected, and we also feel more able to talk about it. Now that’s cool, don’t you think?