There’s a spectre haunting Europe. It’s not the fear of sovereign default, or the threat of conflict with Russia, or youth unemployment. No, this is a spectre that flew below the radar of almost everyone. It is the blight of loneliness and isolation among the elderly. Our ignorance on the subject may have troubling long-term consequences.
Let’s get down to brass tacks:
- Europe’s population is severely greying: the median age for the EU is 41.9 years while in countries like Germany it is 46[i]. The EU average life expectancy at birth in 2012 was 79.2[ii] years and has been steadily increasing. People over 65 will make up an increasing portion of the EU population.
- The concentration of economic and educational opportunities in big cities means that many families are separated. The prevailing doctrine of individualism further breaks down extended family ties. This is especially problematic for Eastern Europe where parents expect to be looked after by their grown-up children. Organised religion, the glue that bound many communities in the past, has lost relevance in large swaths of the continent.
- The quality of social ties is more important than diet or exercise for the health of an individual. In the UK the number of people over 65 who live alone is 5 million; 2 million fail to see another person on a week-to-week basis[iii]. These numbers are expected to swell when the Baby Boomers start retiring en masse. Rates of anomie are also very high in former socialist countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
It seems that Europe is primed for a century of solitude. Loneliness is defined as the chronic lack of meaningful social interactions and is even more subjective than that other hard to quantify concept: happiness. At least we know that happiness is correlated (though not perfectly) with GDP per capita. On average wealthier countries tend to be happier than poor ones. Thus the happiness deficit can be partially plugged with money. It is plausible that wealthy countries have equal or even greater levels of gross domestic loneliness (per capita) than poor ones. Loneliness is undesirable but should we do something about it?
Disease of Civilisation
Last year obesity started overtaking smoking as the number one cause of preventable death in the United States[iv]. A new study, that tracked 2000 people aged over 50, concluded that loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity[v]. Meaning that a full plate is less dangerous for you than an empty chair standing opposite you. Another study found that women with many social connections have much higher chances of surviving breast cancer. Dozens of recent studies confirm the positive effect of social contacts on physiological resilience and recovery[vi]. Chronic loneliness suppresses the immune system and increases the risk of Alzheimer and cardiovascular diseases. It took us more than 60 years but Jean-Paul Sartre was proven wrong: hell is not other people.
We’ve always known that. The most universal and emotional rituals - births, weddings, and funerals - mark the beginning or ending of social bonds. The most severe form of punishment in ancient societies, short of torture or death, was banishment. If a person was nominated for expulsion the Ancient Athenians would vote by putting black or white fragments into a box. These small fragments were called “ostrakons” - hence ostracism. Even today in prisons the highest penalty for bad behaviour is solitary confinement. We need other people to survive and the painful feeling of loneliness has evolved to warn us that our current social bonds are insufficient. Similar to how physical pain warns us not to continue touching a hot stove, social pain (i.e. loneliness) drives us to change our behaviour. We are social animals and the lack of meaningful interaction chips away at our physical health and mental wellbeing.
At first they may seem trivial but the health problems related to loneliness can add another pile to the mountain of healthcare costs. It seems that every malady can be exacerbated once loneliness enters the equation. But tackling this problem is very difficult.
Loneliness is a very subjective feeling. One could chronically feel lonely even while surrounded by friends and family[vii]. Moreover, people tend to disregard psychological disorders because there are no clear physical manifestations of the ailment. The lack of visceral reaction makes us believe there is no real problem. The line of reasoning goes: “it’s all in the mind. So it’s not real and you can just snap out of it”. We all sometimes feel disconnected from the social world and think that chronic loneliness is a symptom of “everything is a disorder” society. There is also the fact that in our youth obsessed culture the elderly are easily ignored.
Unfortunately Silicon Valley cannot solve this problem directly. Our biological hardware was shaped before the invention of Instagram or even Skype, and no amount of online social networks can replace real contact. There is even some evidence that social networks can exacerbate the situation by presenting a photoshopped version of people’s lives.
These days we tend to use pills to solve our problems but as far as I am aware there is no medication that can combat the pain of loneliness. There are of course medications (many of them addictive) that can offer temporary reprieve from some of the associated negative emotions (e.g. feeling low, depression). But is another drug on the market what we really need?
Chronic loneliness among the elderly is a problem that can be diminished but not solved by technology, medicine or the government. These conditions create an environment where social enterprises can step in to fill the breach. “The Silver Line” (UK) is a typical example of recent efforts to combat isolation among the elderly. This is a charity that offers companionship services for the elderly. Trained volunteers interact with retirees at least one hour per week, usually at a prescheduled time. Unfortunately, the majority of interactions take place over the phone and not in person. In 2011 the “Campaign to End Loneliness” launched in the UK. It represents a network of national, regional and local organisations that try to combat loneliness among the elderly through community action, research and good practice.
Perhaps the most interesting solution comes from the Netherlands. One retirement home offers free housing to university students in exchange for “being a good neighbour” and spending at least 30 hours per month with the elderly residents[viii]. Students are encouraged to engage the elderly in a variety of activities including birthday celebrations, conversations or just TV watching. I believe most projects should involve the elderly in some kind of social work like supporting children and young people in their education. Both parties gain as a result, especially the elderly who not only receive companionship but also an increased sense of self-worth.
All of the above mentioned initiatives have produced fine results but remain limited in scope. The good news is that everyone can contribute to the alleviation of this problem. My advice is the same as the one given by actor J.K. Simmons. In his Oscar acceptance speech he said: “Call your mom, call your dad… Tell ‘em you love ‘em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you”. I can only add that you also include other adult and elderly members of your extended family. It takes a small gesture to bring the light of hope to a person’s heart.
[iv] Dovey, D., (2014) Obesity Now Approaching Tobacco As Leading Preventable Cancer Cause. Medical Daily, URL: http://www.medicaldaily.com/obesity-now-approaching-tobacco-leading-prev...
[v] Sample, I., (2014) Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people, study finds. The Guardian, URL: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/feb/16/loneliness-twice-as-unhea...
[vi] Pinker, S. (2014) The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter.
[vii] Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Company.
[viii] Reed, G., (2015) Dutch nursing home offers rent-free housing to students. PBS.org; URL: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/dutch-retirement-home-offers-rent-fr...