Loneliness is a national epidemic — but we can be part of the solution

Social isolation is a modern plague, argues Julia Neuberger


Last week, Age UK reported that soaring numbers of people over 50 in England will suffer from loneliness in the near future as a result of widowhood, ill health and money issues. By 2025-6, the problem will affect more than two million people, a 49 per cent increase on the 1.36m socially isolated in 2015-16. 

Age UK warns that this is a looming “major public health concern, because if loneliness is not addressed it can become chronic, seriously affecting people’s health and wellbeing”. 

It’s a modern plague. It has no visible sign, until we see people diminish physically because they are so alone. It has no obvious mental and emotional signs, until we realise depression is rife. But it’s a plague nonetheless. Indeed, health experts argue that loneliness among older people is as damaging to their health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation among older people puts them at a higher risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease and decreased immune system responsivity.

But this feature of contemporary life is one we could help to change. We’ve all helped cause the epidemic — by the way we use social media, by how distant we live from older relatives, by being too busy to spend time with our neighbours. But, as Jews, we can also be part of the solution, particularly given we still inhabit religious communities, bound together by social ties, as well as faith. We still treasure social networks beyond the digital.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written movingly about alienation as a central feature of modern life: “The distance at which the individual stands from an easy, immediate and innocent identification with nation, society, his physical environment, and other people is a distinguishing mark of the age…” (In ‘Alienation and Faith’, in Tradition vol 13, number 4, 1973) He writes of alienation, but we might call it “alone-ness”, or isolation. 

To some extent, it is nothing new. In the Biblical book of Psalms we read: “I am become a stranger to my brothers and alien to my mother’s children” (Psalms 69:9), a statement of modern alienation and loneliness if ever there were one. Or the author of Psalm 25’s cry to God: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” Or Psalm 102: “I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.” 

The picture is clear. Alienation was experienced by the Psalmist just as it is by people in this day and age. It may be part of the human condition, particularly that occasional feeling of absolute alone-ness, desperation and depression. Indeed, the Psalmist may have been a depressive. 

Yet, what we are seeing now is different in both kind and scale. It is about living in total isolation, in a world increasingly busy, rushing, humdrum, and full of people — but not connected to me. Atomised existence. Deliberate isolation. A result of how we live and choose to live, but also loneliness among those who did not make those choices, but have the effects thrust upon them. 

Most lonely people do not seek out loneliness and alienation. Life throws it at them, or they have some condition that hinders them making those connections and conversations vital to our mental health and emotional wellbeing.  And, as methods of communication change, as increasingly people look at a screen rather than at each other, modern loneliness is scary. For some older people, particularly those housebound and without family or friends around, being alone can morph into desperation. No-one there to whom to pour out the events of the day, however insignificant. That isolation often makes people wonder whether life is worth living — and it goes with modern life styles, and our longevity. 

But this phenomenon exists not only among the old. Evidence is growing of serious loneliness among the young: Facebook friends are not friends. Social networks online cannot provide the easy joshing of friendships and going out in a crowd. 

Constant staring at an iPhone to see what other people are up to may lead to a smartphone addiction — a real concern — but it does not lead to a social life, an ease with other people, many of the features of growing up we used to take for granted. 

Gradually, some younger people are coming to realise that that’s the case. Last August, BBC news featured Mike, a 32-year-old young man in Doncaster, who had gone back home from London to live with his parents and transformed his — once lonely — life by setting up a charity to befriend older people in the area. It’s a howling success. A response to his loneliness and that of others. Not Snapchat or Facebook. Instead, old fashioned going out and visiting isolated people, communicating with them in language they understand. 

For that’s part of the problem. As the way in which we communicate changes, communication becomes more difficult for some. 

Not for nothing do we read about the Tower of Babel in Bereshit (Genesis 11), where the people decided to build a huge tower, a ziggurat — a Babylonian-style temple — and God got worried that all they did, when communication was easy for them, was to show a terrifying sense of their own self-importance. God said: “Come, let us go down, and… confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech…” Their previous single language suggested the world was a single community. But their great tower epitomised their ambition for greatness, forgetting their human need for connectedness. The result — their failure to communicate — was fitting. 

Not understanding each other causes loneliness. Lines of communication are totally severed, and the story makes it clear that grandiose schemes are not what life is about. We do not necessarily need an HS2 or a Millennium Dome. But we do need emotional and physical closeness, and the ability to communicate, with other human beings. We probably need a community, even if we do not like all its features. It makes us feel less isolated in an atomistic age, when people have Facebook friends rather than real ones.

This storm of loneliness is not a wholly new phenomenon, though the scale of it is new. The charity Task Force, which organised visits by teenagers to isolated older people, was founded over 50 years ago. Silverline has put huge energy into telephone friendships. But 17 per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11 per cent less than once a month. Over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone. They are not all lonely, but there’s an increasing likelihood they will be as they get older. Two fifths of all older people say the television is their main company. 

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 36 million members strong, suggests that social isolation should be addressed as a key public health priority. 

Lack of social contacts among older people is associated with an estimated $6.7m in additional Medicare spending every year, which demonstrates that health is not just about the mechanical body, and that our wellbeing, and sense of self, affects our physical health dramatically. 

When campaigning on this issue began some years ago, many people mocked the notion that loneliness was anything more than a personal issue. But that mocking no longer happens. The most powerful advocacy of all has been older people themselves telling their stories, with their willingness to admit to what we imagine to be a social stigma. The dreaded L word.

“The main thing is love. Food, shelter, warmth are important, but it’s the lack of someone caring that leads to despair,” said Mrs W, a retired bank secretary, aged 82.Or an elderly man who said: “I am ashamed to be mentally ill. I am ashamed to have lost my memory and my wife.” Painful comments, which illustrate how difficult loneliness in older age is, often combined with mental ill health.

For us Jews, this should be a wake up call. We can see some of this in our own communities, despite wonderful care agencies in our midst. Though we still retain a strong sense of community, and a belief in the obligation to help others, embodied in the Leviticus phrase “You shall love your neighbour — he/she is like you” (Leviticus 19:18), we do not always act on our priorities. 

Though we believe we have a covenantal relationship with other people, and that living the good life requires being aware of, and reaching out to, others — family, community, wider nation — we do not always do it. The fact that public debate is increasingly about the “need for community” underlines what we have always known. 

In modern free societies, the obligation to others is there because we have chosen to take it upon ourselves. We make commitments as autonomous individuals, to some extent able to choose our destinies. So we choose to be “all in it together”, and we choose to have obligations to our fellow Jews and beyond, comforting the mourners, visiting the sick, holding out a hand to the afflicted, bringing friendship to the lonely: “In a city where non-Jews and Jews live, the tzedakah collectors collect from Jews and non-Jews and support Jewish and non-Jewish poor; we visit Jewish and non-Jewish sick and bury Jewish and non-Jewish dead, and comfort Jewish and non-Jewish mourners….to promote the ways of peace.” (Jerusalem Talmud Demai 4:1)

Within our communities, and beyond, we need to provide more of what already exists — social groups, circles of support and lunch clubs, befriending and visiting, tea parties, or crisis support. We could add to it. Two isolated people, housebound, speaking on the phone or Skype, having their evening drink together. Where Shabbat services are live-streamed, as ours are for the benefit of housebound people, groups on Skype to discuss the sermon afterwards. Transport for people who are isolated to social events or services. Whatever it takes. 

But we should understand this will not be easy, because isolated older people are often hard to reach, having lost confidence, relationships, friends, and sometimes even social skills. For them we will need the many other older people who are precisely the opposite, who make up a large proportion of volunteers, in all sectors of society. They will need to help us reach out. But there may come a time for some of them, too, when they will be too frail to carry on and lose confidence, and that’s when loneliness hits —  unless we intervene. 

In my view, this is a national emergency. We Jews already have some interventions in place, and a strong sense of moral obligation to do more. But the ‘more’ is needed on a massive scale. We can help — of course. And we can campaign. But beyond that we need to ensure that our view of human obligations one to another prevails, that the love of high-tech does not drown out low-tech touch and conversation, and that we stretch out a helping hand. For we are all in it together, and we can make a choice to help deal with this epidemic.

Julia Neuberger, senior rabbi at the West London Synagogue, is also a crossbench peer and writer

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