The lonely 21st Century


Universe Column for November 19th 2006

by David Alton

Will the 21st century be remembered as the lonely century?

Mother Teresa once remarked that “in the developing world there is an epidemic of poverty, in the west an epidemic of loneliness.”

At a White House Prayer breakfast, hosted by Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa said she had been shocked to go to an old people’s home with a superabundance of material luxuries but everyone was sitting facing the door,  waiting for visitors who never came.

It is estimated that one million elderly people in Britain don’t see a friend or a neighbour during the course of an average week. For too many elderly people loneliness and depression are the hidden burden of growing old.

Demography shows this trend will accelerate in the 21st century  with more people living longer and living alone.

The National Office of Statistics say that in 1971 just 18% of households were people living alone. By 1991 it had risen to 27% – and is now some 7 million people.

They predict that by 2021 a staggering 71% of households will be people living alone.

These new households will be predominantly elderly people. The rest will be single people whose marriages have broken down or who have chosen not to marry.

In other words, the 3.8 million extra units of accommodation, which we are told we will need, have nothing to do with a rise in population – we’re actually failing to reproduce ourselves – the demand will come from people living by themselves.

The breakdown of families also fuels loneliness. Around half of marriages now end in divorce – about 167,000 each year. This has left 800,000 children with no contact with their father. Two thirds of fathers never see their children within two years of divorce.

Add to this the nature of small nuclear families – where often a child will be brought up alone – and working patterns which keep mothers and fathers and their children apart; and you can see why we all become more isolated and more lonely.

Where the demands of parents’ own professional careers erodes relaxed family time it militates against the interests of children and leaves everyone more alone.

Flickering boxes – everything from TVs to lap-tops – replace the flickering lights of a living room fire and the hearths and tables around which families used to sit.

Too often atomised people feel lonely and isolated. It’s little wonder that 76% of men are said to experience depression or deep anxiety at some point in their lives. British men now work longer hours than any other men in Europe and there’s a proven link between working patterns and a sense  of well-being.

These new social patterns clearly don’t make us happier and more contented people.

The National Office of Statistics again: they say that “men living alone are more likely than others to experience higher mortality rates and to report a limiting long term illness.” They say that single men aged 45 have a 23% greater risk of an early death. A study from the University of Chicago found that loneliness significantly increased blood pressure, risk of stroke and heart disease.

Although there has been a welcome reduction in the number of suicides the latest figures show 5,755 in the last year for which figures were available – around 15 every day. 75% of suicides are men, most are young men. Suicide is the most common cause of death among young men.

Toxic loneliness, malignant sadness, acute depression – what we used to call the Black Dog – all play their part in pushing people into the abyss.  And when people desperately need someone to reach out to help and support them – as we all do from time to time –

they find little comfort in the array of gadgets and technology and material accoutrements with which we are surrounded.

More and more people resort to anti-depressants. In 1985 6.8 million were dispensed. By 2005 it had risen to 29.4 million (a 334% increase). And the cost had risen from £26 million to £338 million p.a.

Gadgets and drugs are no substitute for some TLC and the proverbial shoulder to cry on.

We all know in our hearts that feeling good, in a purely materialistic or hedonistic sense, does not equate with  being happy or living a fulfilled life: not just “living and partly living” as T.S.Eliot once put it.

Paradoxically, sometimes we desperately need to be able to freely choose to be alone – the solitary desert experience of Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, the desert fathers, anchorites and hermits – but always able to return to the shelter and the support of a loving and secure  community: not to be abandoned and alone.

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