Loneliness a silent epidemic?

15 Jan 2016

Loneliness – a silent epidemic?

This was the question raised in the BBC’s recent programme ‘The Age of Loneliness’ (BBC1, Thursday 7 January, 2016)

Sonia says :

From Dorothy in her 80s and widowed after 58 years to New Zealand Carly who is 30 and living away from home because of work, the recurring theme was that we can be busy but a single household or a life without companionship is an empty one. As Dorothy put it – ‘loneliness – you can’t see it, you can’t touch it and you can’t smell it – you can only feel it.’

The reasons why today people feel more lonely than ever before are complex and of course dependent upon life circumstances but there were some common themes that if we were teaching life skills to young people could be key in making lives more fulfilling and rich.

Whilst there are some people who thrive on solitude, I believe these are few and far between. We may like our own company but that is not the same as having no other human interaction from one day to the next. Just being at work and with people doesn’t necessarily give us that either. For most people it’s our personal connections that have meaning, and one of the key messages in the documentary was that whilst social media and the internet can widen our worlds they can also minimalise real human contact and make it harder to meet people that we can connect with and build relationships.

If loneliness is really, as the programme contends, now a public health issue then organisations like Jewish Care are well placed to address this on so many levels, and I believe, already have started to do so.

Our meaningful lives strategy is premised on the idea that providing a service is not enough if the person receiving that service does not feel it enhances their life or indeed their day.

We have learnt that our independent living facilities need to be more than lovely homes but need to enable people to interact with each other and find neighbours that they can share activity with, from scrabble to Shabbat.

Our volunteering strategy recognises that to volunteer is not just of benefit to those receiving the service but for many volunteers (of all ages) is a way to connect to a local community, have a purpose in their lives, and have someone who needs them – it can build confidence and self-esteem and be the start of quality relationships between volunteers and those using our services. We see this so clearly in our supportive communities’ programme where people come together in someone’s home for tea and create friendships that encourage them do more together outside of the tea party.

Society it seems has lost the art of neighbourliness and so it seems we need educating in its values and benefits. We seem also to have lost the notion that we can all be valuable citizens with so much to give, whatever our age or circumstances. Most importantly though we seem to have lost the art of communication – especially when we see a young mum on television so desperate for an adult conversation she goes to the supermarket everyday just to talk with the cashier so that she has another adult to speak with. Technology is great so long as it does not prevent us from ever having another human interaction.

I grew up in a household of 9. There was always someone to talk to, and often nowhere to hide, but was reminded of its positives when Dorothy (who died alone since the programme was made) told us a ‘happy home is a house full of people’.

We all live busy lives, we all meet people every day but often make no connection to them – how much better would our lives be if we just took a minute to consider how we could make someone else’s life a little less lonely, be they a family member or a stranger?

Sonia Douek is Head of community development at Jewish Care and is the lead for equalities within the organisation.  Over 19 years, she has overseen a number of areas in the organisation including; development of services for carers, volunteering and leading on a community response to ageing well in the Jewish community. 

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