Lynette Fay: Covid exacerbates loneliness so now might be a good time to reach out

Loneliness is all around us. It doesn't discriminate in terms of age, of sex, religion or race. It is stigmatised and sometimes, people are very afraid to admit that they are feeling lonely

Lynette Fay – in the context of the pandemic, how many senior citizens will be left facing into an even longer period of social isolation? Picture by Press Eye/Darren Kidd
Lynette Fay

I HAVE developed an allergy to text messages and emails. I really don’t like them. I much prefer to give someone a call and have a chat.

Social distancing will limit the households we can call in on for the foreseeable future – it’s here to stay. While we work from home, limit our movements and our bubbles, we won’t be seeing many people in person for quite a while.

How many senior citizens will be left on their own, facing into an even longer period of social isolation?

I spent a lot of time reading about and talking about loneliness on my radio show this week. Some of the statistics I learned shocked me. Loneliness can have the same affect on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, one quarter of over-75s who live alone don’t speak to anyone every day, and two out of five pensioners have only the television for company.

This week, the charity Engage with Age rolled out a befriending service – the PAL project. PAL is an acronym for People Against Loneliness. The idea is that people volunteer to become befrienders. They then give a someone who is lonely a call once a week – for a chat, a bit of craic. This half hour of time can make a huge difference in someone’s life. People who feel lonely are invited to contact Engage with Age and register for this service. It’s completely free.

I had the privilege this week of speaking to academic and author Noreena Hertz. She has written a most intriguing book about loneliness. It’s called The Lonely Century – Coming together in a world that is pulling apart. It is enlightening and frightening in equal measure.

While we associate loneliness with the elderly, it is not exclusively experienced by this age group. We are facing into a period of increasing social isolation, and loneliness also springs from division and polarisation.

We are being divided and polarised at present by smartphone technology and social media. How many of us scroll when at the dinner table, watching television when other family members are present? Then, when engrossed in what we are scrolling through, we are sucked into a world of echo chambers, fear of missing out and feeling unfulfilled and insufficient.

Hertz has done incredible work and the book includes examples of how people are trying to combat loneliness – which is felt by different generations all over the world. There is a business in the US called rent a friend, where you can rent someone to spend time with you as a friend – in a platonic way – for $40 per hour.

There are also people who pay for hugs, people who get paid to hug strangers – such is the business of loneliness. Some elderly women in Japan willingly commit petty crime in order to be imprisoned, in an effort to avoid living a life of social isolation.

These examples may sound extreme, and you might think, ah I don’t know anyone like that – but you might!

Loneliness is all around us. It doesn’t discriminate in terms of age, of sex, religion or race. It is stigmatised and sometimes, people are very afraid to admit that they are feeling lonely.

Some people can be surrounded by people all day long but still find themselves feeling lonely, just because they don’t fit in, or they don’t identify with those around them. This can happen in any situation – within families, relationships, workplaces, schools.

While we can’t spend our lives being responsible for the actions or feelings of others, I wonder sometimes if we do enough to help each other. Are we selfish with our time? At the moment, we could be forgiven for firefighting just to make it through each day, as we try to navigate the new normal and a world fearing the second wave of Covid-19.

Whatever the answers to these questions, loneliness was on the rise in our society before we heard tell of Covid-19. The current situation will only exacerbate the problem. If you suspect someone you know is feeling lonely, if you can, and if you have time to do so, now might be a good time reach out.

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