All the (44 million) lonely people

All the (44 million) lonely people

Ana lives in a house full of rooms she doesn’t use. It is the home she grew up in with her parents and four siblings, and where she later brought up her own children and looked after her husband. Now, the two-storey house is too big for her, painfully empty. “My husband died. My daughters got married and went to work abroad. I was left on my own.” Thirteen years have gone by since then.

It is a lot of time and a lot of empty space for this eighty-year-old woman. That’s why she spends most of her time in the living room, full of photos. She says she lives more in the past than in the present. So much so, that she doesn’t always know what day of the week it is. The days are deceptive, so similar is one to the next.

Ana is the perfect embodiment of loneliness, or the stereotype we have of it: widowed, elderly, female. According to Eurostat figures, 32 per cent of Europe’s over-65s – two million of whom are women – live like her, alone. And it is a public health issue.

Because, three months ago, a Spanish woman like Ana fell, and spent four hours on the floor waiting for someone to help her get up.

Because, two months ago, another Spanish woman like Ana was found mummified in her home. She had died four years earlier.

Today, scientists speak about loneliness as if it were a chronic disease. They say it is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, that it kills more people than obesity. The Red Cross has called it a “silent epidemic”, the product of a bipolar society that connects us and isolates us at the same time.

In the United Kingdom, a report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness revealed in 2017 that over nine million of its citizens were lonely and around 200,000 had not spoken to anyone for a year. Many of these people were not elderly, they were young people aged between 16 and 24 years old, teenagers.

That is why the UK has become the first country to appoint a Loneliness Minister, tasked with mitigating this sorry affliction that costs the British around £32 billion (around US$41.8 billion) a year in health spending. Between the applause and the bewilderment, the question arises, how can the state manage a feeling?

Being alone. Being lonely

One in every three households in Europe is currently occupied by a person living alone. This is the household composition that has grown the most in the last decade, but as Barcelona University sociologist Cristina López points out, living alone does not necessarily mean being lonely.

“Many such households are occupied by elderly people, but there is also an emerging reality of people aged between 30 and 45 for whom living alone means freedom and independence. They choose to live alone.”

There are people who are alone yet happy, and people surrounded by others who feel completely abandoned. Because loneliness is a subjective feeling, and difficult to measure. There is a test, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, that is often used in such cases. It is based on two questions: how often do you feel part of a group? How often do you feel there is someone who really understands you?

The feeling of loneliness is linked to factors such as these, rather than whether or not you share a bathroom with someone.

“Elderly people living in homes or sheltered housing have people around them all day, workers or other residents, and yet many feel profoundly lonely,” says Regina Martínez, coordinator of the Loneliness Observatory (Observatorio de la Soledad).

The Observatory warns of the rapid growth in this collective melancholy, but avoids using the term ‘epidemic’. “If we treated it as an epidemic, we would only put emergency policies in place but what we need to address are the structural causes.” Martínez mentions various: the changes in families – which are becoming ever smaller, and increasingly separated by distance – the asphyxiating lack of time, cities designed for individuals and not communities.

There are, of course, people who tend to be more solitary by nature. A study conducted with twins indicates that loneliness could be up to 50 per cent hereditary. “But, be that as it may, we all share a common need, the need to talk to someone every day,” explains Pedro Marijuan, who has for several years been heading research into ‘socio-typical’ behaviour, or how we relate to others. “We are social by nature. If that aspect is lacking, the entire person is affected. It’s the same as trying to get by without eating or drinking.”

And yet, we tend to speak less and less, or less so face to face. We have no problem following a stranger on social media yet dread finding ourselves in the lift at the same time as a neighbour.

“Social media provides another way of communicating, but it doesn’t provide us with the same satisfaction. It is, ultimately, a very superficial type of relationship,” says Francisca Expósito, a psychology professor at the University of Granada. In her view, loneliness is not the absence of relations, but the lack of significant relations. “Not having someone you can relate to is the most painful kind of loneliness.”

A taboo ailment

Whether it is considered an epidemic or not, what is undeniable is that loneliness is a chronic ailment: it increases cortisol – the stress hormone – levels, increases the risk of having a stroke and heart disease, affects the immune system, and can cause depression and dementia.

Psychiatrist Laura Rico has observed the phenomenon in countries as diverse as Finland, Spain and Poland. “The risk of death increases by 26 per cent in people who feel lonely and men are at the highest risk, because they take longer to admit to it. When a man acknowledges that he is lonely, it’s already too late.”

It is the taboo effect, the fact that abandonment is seen as a personal failure, or that it is accepted with the same resignation as aching bones. “That’s why the fact that the issue is being given visibility in the United Kingdom is important. It makes it easier for people who feel lonely to turn to public services for help, and not to feel ashamed about it,” argues Martínez.

For others, however, the idea of the new Ministry, with a name that sounds like it has been taken from the Orwellian universe of 1984, is no more than a marketing operation. “This is a problem that is countered with fluid and free social relations. Anything that is bureaucratised is made even worse,” argues Marijuan.

In any case, the British example is spreading. In Holland, the government has announced that €26 million is to be allocated to a plan to combat isolation, with the creation, for example, of a census of elderly people living alone. The idea is to detect at-risk cases early, to stop people from dying without anyone missing them.

In Spain, there are associations organising volunteers. Thanks to one such initiative, organised by Fundación Harena, Ana has Maria, a student, who visits her twice a week, someone who talks and listens to her, someone who dispels her fear of leaving the house. “We go for walks, we play cards. She brings me joy and I bring her experience,” says Ana.

As the Loneliness Observatory points out: “A profound and crosscutting change is needed to tackle this problem at every level: administrative, associative and individual.”

A state cannot, of course, enforce affinity between people, but it can strengthen community relations, improve access to housing and employment, organise prevention campaigns, reinforce primary health care services, eradicate the architectural barriers that turn homes into prisons. It is the only way of avoidinga future as desolate as Hopper’s paintings.

Today, 6 per cent of Europeans – young, old, men, women – admit they have no one to talk to about their problems. It is not a personal failure, there are 44 million lonely people.

This article has been translated from Spanish.