Loneliness — the new epidemic

By Caitlin Kelly

Loneliness (Photo credit: FotoRita [Allstar maniac])

Powerful piece in The Globe and Mail:

In Vancouver, residents recently listed social isolation as their most pressing concern. More Canadians than ever live alone, and almost one-quarter describe themselves as lonely. In the United States, two studies showed that 40 per cent of people say they’re lonely, a figure that has doubled in 30 years. Britain has a registered charity campaigning to end chronic loneliness, and last month, health secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech about the isolated many, calling attention to “a forgotten million who live amongst us ignored, to our national shame.”

It is the great irony of our age that we have never been better connected, or more adrift.

The issue isn’t just social, it’s a public-health crisis in waiting. If you suffer from chronic loneliness, you run the risk of illness, and premature death.

“This is a bigger problem than we realize,” says Ami Rokach, a psychologist and lecturer at York University in Toronto, who has been researching the subject for more than three decades.

“Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

The holiday season is a time of year when feeling unconnected, or disconnected, can be more painful than ever.

As someone who’s been working alone at home — with no pets or kids for company or distraction — since 2006, I know how isolating this form of employment can get. Yes, I can go to the library or a cafe to be surrounded by people, but that’s not the solution. They’re not friends.

I realized the other day where my community lies, and it’s not at all what I would have answered if you asked. It’s the YMCA in my small town. I go there three or four times most weeks, taking classes in jazz dance and choreography or using the work-out room. I also sometimes take pool aerobics. So every visit now means running into one of my teachers or a fellow student or a neighbor.

It feels really good.

Loneliness is something I’ve fought for years since I moved to New York in 1989, jobless, knowing only two people, my fiance (now my first husband) and a high school friend of my mother’s. To my dismay, she never bothered to invite me for coffee or, even though she worked in the same industry, make an introduction to anyone. It was very tough indeed.

Getting divorced five years after arriving here was also difficult. I had only one deep friendship, with a woman (sadly) since gone from my life.

Only in the past four or five years have I felt at home here, thanks to finally having found several good friends. No matter my professional achievements, it was a long, long time of feeling disconnected and unwelcome. When you live in a suburb, and don’t have kids or hobbies, it’s tough to find and nurture new friendships. And New Yorkers endure the nation’s longest commutes, their spare hours devoted tend to work or family.

This year, Jose is working on Thanksgiving but I’ve been adopted for the holiday — strolling only three doors down a warm, dry hallway on my floor to join friends for their Thanksgiving meal tomorrow.

I love this smart, creative solution. (Yay, Canada!)

The Vancouver Foundation has another answer: It is giving out grants of $500 to people who will organize a community event that brings strangers together – a knitting circle, an origami workshop, a pumpkin-carving jamboree. Mr. McCort attended one gathering recently, and was struck by an unfamiliar sight: “No one was on their phone, or checking email. There were a hundred people, just talking and making new friends.”

Do you feel lonely?

What do you do to try and alleviate it?



30 thoughts on “Loneliness — the new epidemic

  1. Sometimes I look out our upstairs window and feel like yelling at someone to come on up: yes, I can get pretty lonely (despite being married) since retiring from work that gave me constant intense contact with people. I enjoy people immensely. Now I write and read, walk, listen to music, enjoy art a bit and head out to see new sights. Your engagement with the “Y” reminds me of my athletic club hours of sweaty fun. I make a habit of seeing a few friends as often as their work schedules allow. But I also am trying out the site http://www.meetip.com which can bring people with similar interests together. Don’t know yet how that will work out. Next up: volunteering–something that has been a great experience before.

    1. I’m aware of meetup, but have not tried it. I spend so much energy marketing myself and my writing I tend to shy away from having to do it socially.

      Volunteering is always a good bet. I actually enjoyed working PT retail for quite a while because of the people contact.

  2. Sadly, this is an ever-present problem for expats in Hawaii as well. The backdrop of tropical utopian scenery is not enough to assuage the void of close friends, family, and familiar comforts.

      1. Yes, and 5,000 miles from home. However, we take advantage of our experiences by seizing life by the… day. 😉

        Happy(& socially blessed)travels; I enjoy your work.

  3. I actually wrote about this recently, “Tis that depressing time of year again, the holidays.” I remember when I was a kid and seeing some old guy buying a box or two of frozen turkey dinners and feeling sad. But now I totally get it. And yes, good on Canada.

  4. Yes and no. Occasionally I feel lonely, but I think the sense of shame around loneliness that I’ve felt in the past (“it’s my fault, there’s something wrong with me”) is worse than the loneliness itself. Hence I try to see loneliness as something like getting a cold every so often– a part of life (or life as we live it today, maybe not in past tribal times), that comes and goes. At the same time, when I feel lonely, I do try to reach out. I find that the act of setting up a coffee or some kind of interaction (even if it hasn’t happened yet), that alone already makes me feel better!

    1. It seems odd to me that we should be ashamed of wanting to feel loved!

      I agree, setting up “play dates” for ourselves is really cheering. If kids can happily look forward to them, why not us? 🙂

  5. Interesting topic! As a freelance translator I definitely can relate to this phenomenon! Being at a cafe or the library doesn’t make one feel less lonely, but it certainly beats being alone at home.
    Thanks for sharing,

    1. I agree — having company around can be cheering. Fun to eavesdrop, too! Or sometimes strike up a conversation, as I did recently in a NYC cafe. Now that it’s cold, wet and dark by 5pm, it’s even tougher to get OUT.

      Thanks for sharing!

  6. Being in a foreign country I have moments of complete loneliness, I’ve made friends here but not the kind that I can just show up at thier house at the last minute.

    I miss that feeling of calling a friend at any time of day and meeting up. Perth people tend to keep to themselves, they seem welcoming but they keep you at an arms length!

    I was saying to my partner over the weekend that I feel that I put a lot of energy into calling people, emailing etc. Sometimes it comes back…but generally I’m the one reaching out because I am so far away and don’t have that circle with me.

    I enjoy being social with close friends. But put me in a room full of strangers (as I experieced at a work function a few weeks ago) and I’ll want to run and hide. I’m introverted and a little extroverted. Crowds really exhaust me!

  7. Susan Dunphy

    Frist of all, let me tell you how much I enjoy your blog. You might want to add this book to the list of your sources on loneliness: Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White, who was born in America and is now Canadian. I think you’d find the book very interesting.

  8. Inese Poga Art Gallery

    I’ve been self-employed and living alone for quite many years. I’m married (approx. 10 years) now again, however my husband is practically always working and when he comes home, he’s exhausted. I don’t blame him. I’ve been in Canada for almost 10 years. It’s strikingly different from Europe, more precisely Latvia. It is so that people here need invitations at least month ahead, and very often they even wouldn’t show up. I have noticed that people in North America like promising everything, complimenting on anything, and nothing of that is genuine. Nobody would drop in just simply to have a cup of tea or coffee, just to exchange a couple of words.
    I’m used to spend most of my time alone. However, I’m giving art classes, I’m arranging different free events for people to come out, lots of stuff at practically only my cost. Do you think many attend? No, it’s usually just a few people who’d like art or music. I obviously cannot afford expensive advertising, but I make people aware that this and that is taking place.
    Well, I think people who have lots to do, plenty of ideas, etc. can be alone, but not lonely. If you have something to do you are never bored. I like being alone, in fact, that allows me to work on my new ideas.
    Internet is doing both: connecting people and making them feel totally lonely. I’ve noticed (since I’ve been doing medical writing, translations and research for about 30 years) that people who don’t have hobbies, who are not interested in anything, not even in work about their house, garden, who are not sewing, not knitting, not painting, not even reading real books, experience loneliness much more, thus, get depressed, anxious and feeling sick much easier. Most of them spend their time on the Internet or watching TV. I’d suggest get some interesting stuff you love doing and you won’t feel lonely.

    1. I’m so sorry about those damn frosty Canadians! 🙂

      I grew up there so I know exactly the behavior you’re talking about…It is chilly and weird and very unfriendly. I’ve given up trying to do any business with Canadians as they behave in ways I now find very rude and bizarre — un-returned calls and emails and demands for free work. I much prefer Americans in this respect.

      I agree with you entirely about having interests — I have so many things I’m dying to get to I’m never bored. Just n my home I’ve got all sorts of painting and drawing materials, a camera, binoculars, books and magazines, recipes to try…I grew up as an only child and got used to amusing myself. I can’t imagine a life with no interests. It would indeed be lonely and anxious.

      Thank you for commenting!

  9. rich

    I daresay that there is a book idea just waiting to be explored…….there seems to have been an explosion of late of non-fiction books well written that explore ideas….this is certainly an idea that needs to be further explored….

  10. My husband and I moved from Maryland to California about a year and a half ago, and left behind a really close (emotionally and logistically) circle of friends who we saw at least weekly, usually more than that. While we have friends here in California (kind of made sure of it before we moved out here), everything feels so spread out that it’s difficult to get together with people. Plus, of course, people are so busy that they don’t have time. They’ve already established their lives here, and we’re just… interrupting. (Not really, but it can feel that way sometimes.) A very common thing here, we’ve discovered, is people scheduling or agreeing to things but then canceling at the last minute. I don’t blame them, it’s usually good for them that something important comes up, but it’s a little disappointing for me.

    1. Ouch! I hate when people do that, and quickly drop them from my address book.

      It’s hard to make new pals in a place where friendship is less of a priority. I have really seen how that can differ; when I lived in Montreal, I made friends easily but in rural NH thought I would die of loneliness.

      I hope you settle in and find some good reliable pals soon.

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