Why the loneliness epidemic?

Leicester staff member Steve Melluish offers thoughts about why, increasingly, we live apart and why this matters

This blog post is based on the introduction I gave to the Psychology Cultures Seminar that took place on 5th December 2016 on ‘The inner lives of older people’. The seminar aimed to draw awareness to the issue of loneliness and the impact this is having on older peoples’ lives and their well-being. It was jointly organised with Leicester Ageing Together (LAT) and Rob Hunter, Chair of LAT, has written another blog post on their work (see blog here).

My awareness of the extent of the issue of loneliness first came from reading an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian back in 2014 titled ‘the Age of loneliness is killing us’ (Monbiot, 2014). Monbiot begins his article by asking the question, ‘what do we call this time? ‘.  He says that while it is often referred to as ‘the Anthropocene Age’, or sometimes ‘The Digital Age’, what distinguishes this century from the previous twenty is a clear social change and that a more accurate description for our age is the ‘Age of Loneliness’.  We now live our lives increasingly apart, and this is unlike any historical time that has gone before. Monbiot points out that we have always been social creatures, ‘mammalian bees’, and that we are shaped, more than almost any other species, by contact with others and depend entirely on each other. However, according to Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally has increased dramatically, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011, an increase of around 80% in 15 years (Hodgson, 2007). In the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics, 34% of households now have one person living in them (ONS, 2016).

Loneliness affects all of us. A government study in June revealed that Britain is the ‘loneliness capital’ of Europe, ranked 28th out of 30 European countries. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours.  Research also suggests that social isolation is harmful both to our physical and mental health.  Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) report that loneliness has as big an effect on life expectancy as well-known risk factors such as obesity and smoking. It has also been associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke (Valtorta el al , 2016).

In terms of mental health, loneliness increases a person’s chance of developing dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012), is correlated with depression (Cacioppo et al, 2006), and is predictive of suicide in older age (O’Connell et al, 2004).

For older people loneliness is a great affliction. A study by Independent Age (2014) showed that loneliness affects the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50 in England. It suggests the numbers of older men over 65 years old living alone is to rise by 65% in the next 13 years. One outcome of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation. It is reported that two-fifths of older people in the UK now report that the television is their principal company (Age UK, 2014).

So, how has this epidemic come about?

There are many factors that have been associated with this social change and the increasing atomisation within our society, principally among them urbanisation and the new digital technology. However, I am swayed by Monbiot’s argument that the most significant factor is the ideological shift that has taken place over the last 30 years, which has promoted competition and individualism above cooperation and collectivism. This ideology, known as neoliberalism, has promoted the view that what counts in our society today is to win, and that we should only have a responsibility for ourselves. These ideas have weakened our sense of connection to others and created a less compassionate world, in which we no longer have a social contract that is based on sharing risk and a shared concern for those experiencing hardship.

The idea that there is now no such thing as society, only individualism (as famously remarked by Margaret Thatcher, one of the key ideologues of neoliberalism) goes against our natural state of existence as social creatures. It is thus encouraging to see community- based initiatives that are trying to counter the fantasy that we can ‘go it alone’ and are trying to rebuild social connections.

The Psychology Cultures Seminar at Leicester on the inner lives of older people looked at three innovative projects that have been set up to try and address the issue of loneliness amongst older people. Leicester Ageing Together, funded by the Big Lottery, has been set up to address social and emotional loneliness in older people and to create local cultures in which older people can flourish. The Silver Line, a helpline set up by Esther Rantzen in 2013 to support vulnerable older people, offers information, advice, referrals, and friendship to combat loneliness and isolation. Intergen, a community psychological intervention project set up in Manchester, enables older people to contribute to their local communities through volunteering in schools. These projects, while all aimed at older people, do acknowledge that older people should not be treated as a homogeneous group, and that solutions to loneliness are often not possible to standardise.

For me the importance of projects such as these is that they can be seen as part of a challenge to the dominant narrative of individualism. They demonstrate that when we act together, we can find ways to rebuild shared social connections and to create a more compassionate society.

 

References:

Age UK (2014). http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

Cacioppo et al, (2006) Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging, Vol 21(1), Mar 2006, 140-151. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.21.1.140

Hodgson, A. (2007). One person households opportunities for consumer goods companies.

http://blog.euromonitor.com/2007/09/one-person-households-opportunities-for-consumer-goods-companies.html

Holt-Lunstad. J., Smith, T. and Bradley Layton, J. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Metanalytic Review. Plos Medicine.   Published: July 27, 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

Independent Age (2014): https://www.independentage.org/policy-research/research-reports

Monbiot, G. (2014) ‘the Age of loneliness is killing us’. Guardian Newspaper. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us

Monbiot, G. (2016). Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching us apart. Guardian Newspaper.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/neoliberalism-creating-loneliness-wrenching-society-apart

ONS (2016). Families and Households in the UK: www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2016

Valtorta, N., Kanaan, M., Gilbody,S., Bonzi, S. and Henratty, B.  (2016).  Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart  http://heart.bmj.com/content/early/2016/03/15/heartjnl-2015-308790

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