Loneliness is thought to affect nine million people in the UK. It is estimated that around 200,00 older adults have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in over a month. About half of people aged 75 and over live alone, and 85% of young disabled adults feel lonely, and many can go day and even weeks without any social interaction. A third of Americans are categorised as lonely as well.
To deal with the issue of loneliness, the UK Government appointed its first ever minister for loneliness, in a statement, the prime minister Theresa May said “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by careers, by those who have lost loved ones—people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,”
The effects of social isolation and loneliness are huge, this is why the UK has created a new portfolio. Social isolation and loneliness have been shown to increase the chances of people premature deaths. Loneliness has also been shown to cause changes in cardiovascular, hormonal and immune function. Changes in immune function can result is a chronic inflammatory state which can damage the heart, reduce the capacity to resist infection and increases the loss of bone and muscle density. Loneliness is also associated with frailty. Frailty is a condition that is found in the elderly when they gradually lose their independence. Loneliness and social isolation also reduce opportunities for mental stimulation in activities that reduce the risk of dementia.
What is puzzling about the loneliness epidemic in western countries is that people seem to be more connected than ever thanks in part to industrialisation. It is even more puzzling when you consider the fact that people are more connected now through mediums like telephones, email and social media. One would think that it would not take much for someone to just pick a phone and talk to someone.
This may be due to general busyness of life, people are just too busy with life to care about other people. Society has changed, people due to work, education and other commitments no longer surround themselves with extended families. This is even more of a problem in the elderly. Social isolation and sleep deprivation have significant mental and physiological effects on especially new parents as well. The levels of postnatal depression in western countries are high compared to many parts of Africa that still organise themselves into groups and communities.
In these groups, you will often find that the Grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles all live within distance. In fact in some African cultures, if a woman has a child, the parents of the new mum will often come to live the mother for a while and help out with everything at home, so that the only thing the new mum has to do is to feed the baby.
Another reason for the rise in loneliness is the excessive use of social media, especially among young people. People these days can talk online, but lack the social intelligence to communicate with anyone in person. Social media has a way of de-sensitising people and make them oblivious to what is around them. Studies have shown that lonely people tend to use the internet a lot more on average.
Conservatives will often say, politics are downstream from culture, appointing ministers for loneliness is a step in the right direction. People should not confuse being surrounded by people as not being lonely, being lonely is not having any primary human relational connection, be it with your spouse, kids or friends. People can still feel alone and isolated while in the company of people and while I believe the appointment is a good idea. I think you cannot fix from the top what is as a result of a broken fundamental unit of any society and in this case the family. Fixing loneliness should be the Job of non-governmental organisations and not the government.
In conclusion, people need to get out more, volunteer and get involved in the community, studies have found that people who donate their time feel more socially connected. Other studies have indicated that volunteering in the community can also have physical benefits such as low blood pressure and a longer lifespan. Community relations and volunteering are one of the main reason religious people tend to be happier and live longer on average.
It is somewhat sad that some of the wealthiest countries in the world are also some of the most lonely and depressed nations at the same time.