“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” – Three Dog Night
Albanian woman Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, who is better known as Mother Teresa, once said that “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty”.
Working with the most marginalised people of that vast Indian city, Mother Teresa reputedly never again got to see her mother or sister after she’d left home.
Increasingly, the West is attempting to tackle the issue of loneliness. Last January, the UK appointed a “Minister for Loneliness” after research showed that “nine million British people often or always feel lonely”.
More than a third of US citizens aged over 45 report feeling lonely.
Closer to home, more than 80 percent of respondents to a 2016 Lifeline survey believed loneliness was on the rise – that’s eight of every 10 Australians.
Sadly, 66 percent of them said they “often feel lonely”.
How do we best respond to those kinds of numbers and that weight of isolation?
“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.” – US activist and social reformer Dorothy Day
The Wangaratta Uniting Church (about 250km north-east of Melbourne) regularly hosts “PALS” – People Alone Lending Support.
On the first Wednesday of each month, up to 25 members (aged from 50 to 99) of the community get together.
PALS coordinator Elva Lovett said the meetings were a great way to “share our lives”.
“We take bus trips, we’ve participated in some church services, we have guest speakers on topical subjects, enjoy special events like the AFL Grand Final, and we share memories and photographs,” she said.
“We ladies share the group with six men, but we have recently lost some foundation members to old age and illness.”
Asked how serious loneliness was in her community, Elva said it was “a bigger problem than any issue we have ever had in our lives”.
“I am fortunate that I have good neighbours, but not everyone has that experience,” she said.
Elva found that PALS helps alleviate loneliness. She also volunteers at Wangaratta’s hospital where, she said, “many people tell us that they are isolated geographically and emotionally”.
Elva has been part of PALS since 1998, and has led the group “as a fill in” since January this year.
She and her three volunteers in the kitchen love what they do, and Elva says “our people really look forward to catching up; for some of us it’s the big adventure for the month”.
“We come from private residences, from retirement homes and aged care facilities. Everyone is welcome and we come from church backgrounds of all kinds and from no church backgrounds as well. Members come and members go,” Elva said.
At the beginning of the year, PALS was in hiatus. The big question Elva fielded was, “When are we starting?”
Happily, the answer was “soon”.
“Loneliness is, I think, people’s biggest fear, whether they are conscious of it or not.” – Film director Andrew Stanton
Rev Dr John Broughton is the Director of Mission for Uniting AgeWell.
John is tasked with providing guidance and pastoral and spiritual advice to the Uniting AgeWell chaplains in Victoria and Tasmania.
He employs, supports, trains and supervises 12 chaplains across 20 sites.
“There are people in aged care who are lonely because they don’t have family nearby, or no family at all, and have few visitors,” John says.
“Some people ended up far away from their working lives and everything and everyone they ever knew.
“Young or old, if you have time on your hands and are on your own, then you need human intimacy.
For older people, the opportunity to reflect on life lessons is important, and to note the contribution they have made and the legacy they will leave behind.
“Every person needs to know they are of worth; that they have a uniqueness, and a right to dignity and respect.
“For older Australians, sometimes people feel regret or guilt because they didn’t tell them they loved them, or spend enough time with them. That can contribute to their loneliness.”
John said that while some people desired company, “others prefer to spend time on their own”.
“In the Christian faith, we believe we are made in the image of God, and the image of God is relationship – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In that way, relationships enhance our humanity,” he said.
“With older Australians, they can have all their reflections and memories going through their minds and no one to share them with.
“There can also be anxiety about life and events and a lack of consolation if friends and family have passed on.”
That’s where chaplains can minister to lonely people, John said.
“The role of a chaplain has changed from being someone who is restricted to the confines of the church to being someone who is visible and available to talk with people and listen to them wherever they are,” John said.
“Chaplains offer relationship, counsel and trust and they have the added dimension of being able to share the most private conversations about spirituality, if they are invited to do so.
“Religion is one way of expressing spirituality and spiritual expression can be helpful in addressing loneliness.”
To help combat loneliness, Uniting AgeWell chaplains offer support and counselling, facilitate woodwork, cards, games, excursions, concerts, films, and visits from school children.
“Our chaplains and pastoral care volunteer visitors are there for people in times when they feel alone or, indeed, are alone,” John said.
“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” – Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles
He has cited public health experts’ belief that “loneliness is a greater risk to our public health than obesity” and has suggested faith and community can help produce “a more compassionate and less anxious society”.
Back in 2013, he spoke of “RSI syndrome”, or “Reduced Social Interaction syndrome”.
Speaking to Crosslight, Hugh said he thought RSI syndrome “is increasing, and the indicator is the rise in anxiety”.
“Beyondblue has told us that two million Australians were suffering from anxiety last year; anxiety and depression are symptoms of social fragmentation, which is increasing,” Hugh said.
Hugh notes that single-person dwellings will soon make up every third household in Australia.
“This means that the risk of social isolation, which adds to social fragmentation, is greatly increased,” he said.
Hugh points out the increasing social isolation that comes from “Drive In, Drive Out” employment, and a population that moves house “on average every six years”.
He also notes that “we have elevated ‘busyness’ to the status of a social virtue – with mobiles and texts and emails, we are never really away from work, meaning there’s less time and energy available for local neighbourhood interaction; people are stretched”.
While aged Australians face the prospect of loneliness, Hugh, perhaps surprisingly, thinks the young are at a significantly higher risk.
He has long drawn the connections between social media use by young people and increased loneliness.
“They are constantly on their own, sending and receiving messages without any ‘deeper’ connection,” Hugh said.
“When we talk face-to-face, one of the critical components of the conversation is eye contact.”
Australian neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr has found that the critical component for empathy is eye and skin contact.
A deeper connection between people needs all the subtleties and nuances of face-to-face communication, posture, gesture, tone of voice.
Hugh said those who began using smartphones in pre-puberty are most at risk of failing to understand what it is to have deeper personal connections.
US ‘i-Gen’ researcher Dr Jean Twenge said there was now a generation of kids who acquired smartphones before adolescence.
These ‘digital natives’ are less inclined to want to learn to drive, go to parties or start dating.
Hugh said the more we cut ourselves off from human presence the more it slowed our moral development.
“Close involvement with communities helps cultivate the skills of listening and looking out for others in crisis,” he said.
“With churches in decline, individuals are waking up to the fact they don’t know their neighbours.
“We have to reconnect, and we are realising that we have to compensate for that loss, by inviting our neighbours in for a drink, or have street parties, or informal get-togethers – rebuilding our grassroots is how we will solve this problem.
“If churches want to revitalise themselves they have to rethink the model and rediscover service to others.”
Hugh noted that local libraries were filling some of this community building role, with homework coaching, discussions groups, maternity classes, pre-natal and child playgroups, and public speaking and reading groups.
Still, he added, “the church can be a place where people can share their problems, and find ‘belonging’ with people who are warm and mutually supportive”.
According to Hugh, doctrine is less significant for many than the human embrace.
“Many young people who describe themselves as SBNR – spiritual but not religious – may be surprised to find that many Western Christians also feel that way,” he said.
“I just might have a problem that you’ll understand. We all need somebody to lean on.” – Bill Withers
Hugh has previously quipped that “nothing brings us closer to despair than the relentless pursuit of our own happiness”.
“We need each other,” he said simply.
“Whether in a religious or secular context, we are talking about the ancient wisdom that was captured by Jesus and the rabbis, by Buddha and the Hindus, by the Greek philosophers, and has been re-discovered by contemporary psychologists.
“If you pursue your own happiness, a sense of fulfilment, meaning and purpose, then you will find out that stuff comes from giving, not taking.
“That means putting our faith in something greater than ourselves – God, love, the power of forgiveness, social justice – and focusing on the needs of other people. The best way to solve our own sense of loneliness is to help address the loneliness of others.
“We are hopeless in isolation. For the communities that sustain us to thrive, we need to engage with them and breathe life into them.”
Elva reckons her friends at PALS in Wangararra have the right approach to warding off loneliness.
“We support one another. If someone’s not there, we make sure that they are OK,” she said.
“We have a genuine regard and respect for one another and an interest in each other’s lives – we need more of that in this world.”