IN a world increasingly connected by technology, where anyone can be contacted anywhere at almost any time, it’s tempting to think that we need never feel lonely again.
Of course it’s not so simple. Despite living in an age when we are more connected globally than ever before – and in towns and cities with booming, bustling populations, in many cases the things that bring so many together are also making more and more of us feel utterly alone.
We all have days when we feel slightly alone of course – our friends are busy, the kids are away, nobody’s responding to your texts or calls.
As bad as that may seem, it is very different to feeling deeply, inconsolably lonely.
Loneliness is a growing problem, in a modern society that spreads people further and further from their family roots, and sees them interact more and more with technology, rather than real people. Last year it was estimated that more than 10,000 over-75s in Scotland – and almost 2000 in the Lothians –spent Christmas Day alone because their children were too busy to visit them.
A study by the older people’s charity WRVS said many elderly people were left isolated and lonely because their families had moved away, often to find work. But almost two-thirds of older people said they would not tell their children they were lonely because they did not want to “bother them”. And while loneliness is an affliction often seen as an ‘old person problem’ – a new report shows that more than five million older people in the UK are affected by loneliness – the truth is, younger people are affected too.
Recent research by the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people than the elderly, with 18 to 34-year-olds more likely than the over-55s to feel lonely often, to worry about feeling alone, and to feel depressed because of loneliness. Prior to that, earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe – we are less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than people anywhere else in the EU.
And it is only going to get worse. Friends of the Elderly has just published a new report, The Future of Loneliness, which suggests that by 2030, 40 per cent of older people in the UK will be lonely.
That’s a terrifying figure – especially when you also realise loneliness is said to be as life-threatening to the elderly as obesity and poverty.
It’s not all without hope though.
Friends of the Elderly is now running a Be a Friend campaign (www.beafriendtoday.org.uk), encouraging people to get to know their older neighbours, and look out for each other where they can.
And Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, reminds people that the mental health charity is there to help anyone battling feelings of isolation.
“Loneliness can have a significant impact on mental health, contributing to problems such as anxiety and depression,” says Ms Murphy.
While people often feel lonely because of personal circumstances – such as bereavement, relationship breakdown, retirement, moving to a new area, discrimination, being a carer and not being able to get out, or past physical or sexual abuse that makes it hard to form relationships – sometimes loneliness is a deeper, more constant feeling that comes from within, she explains. That feeling that doesn’t disappear, no matter how many friends you have.
When this is the case, it’s about learning to make the best of being alone.
Yes, it’s easier said than done, but Ms Murphy has some suggestions. Learn yoga or meditation, to refocus and calm your mind, keep a journal to share your thoughts in and, where circumstances allow, how about getting a pet?
She also encourages people to get out and do something they enjoy, be it visiting a tourist attraction or cooking, and focus on the pleasure it gives you, rather than the fact you’re doing it by yourself.
Turn being alone into a positive, empowering thing, not a burden.
Pets can give people company they need
PETS are often seen as an ideal way of helping to deal with loneliness – and as the problem has grown around the world so too have innovative solutions.
When faced with an epidemic of loneliness in its major cities, Japanese businesses started up cat cafes, allowing people unable to keep pets to spend valuable time socialising with friendly animals. The idea has spread around the world, and there are plans for Scotland’s first such establishment to open in Edinburgh later this year.
Anna Tajsiak, 26, one of the people behind the idea, said the pace of modern life was one of the biggest problems.
“We all live very hectic lives, and so we don’t have time any more to just sit and talk to people,” she said. “The cat cafe is something we really hope will be able to help people who are lonely, as cats are very therapeutic animals – they are calm and gentle and relaxing. And there is a social aspect as well – we want people to come in and relax and take their time, not rush.”
Of course there are many other steps you can take, however small, to become more connected with the world:
n Make contact with people you know on the phone, by text or e-mail.
n In a group situation, make a special effort to join in the conversation – you never know where it might lead.
n Make the most of opportunities for social contact, however fleeting, by starting a conversation or just saying hello.
n Ask people about themselves and what they’re interested in – people always like talking about themselves.
n Join a social group connected to something that interests you, like gardening, walking, sport etc.
n The internet is a good way to connect with people, but think about what information you share.