PENINSULA ZOOMERS: Distinct difference between alone and lonely

Britain’s lead would be a good one to follow when it comes to tackling loneliness, writes April Lewis

All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

The Beatles wrote about loneliness when they penned the words to Eleanor Rigby so many years ago.

Today, it seems that loneliness has taken on a life of its own and is the topic of so many newspaper articles and discussions.

Recently, I experienced a lengthy power outage at home which gave me the opportunity to light candles. My place looked so peaceful and romantic and it forced me to be still. To be quiet and reflective.

I was alone but I was not lonely. There is a difference.

According to cultural historian Dr. Fay Bound Alberti, “loneliness is a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation; an emotional lack that concerns a person’s place in the world.”

Humans are social by nature, but often we don’t want to talk about the ‘L’ word, as no one wants to admit they are lonely.

Statistics Canada reports the number of persons living alone in Canada has more than doubled over the last 35 years to 4.0 million in 2016 (or 14 per cent of the population) from 1.7 million in 1981, and that 24.6 per cent of the Canadian population 65 and older lives alone. According to a recent United Way study, more than 25,000 seniors in the Lower Mainland have no one to call in an emergency.

Of course, the longer we live, the more loved ones we lose. Our spouses die, our friends die and our kids often live far away.

But loneliness knows no age barrier, as it affects our younger generations as well. With the onslaught of social media dominating our every waking moment, the result is not more connection; rather, less.

In the words of Dr. Allen Frances, one of the world’s foremost psychiatrists, “internet social networking helps some find a place of virtual belonging… a life raft for those who have nothing else but they can also be an anchor that drags people into even more isolation.”

A recent Angus Reid poll found that four in 10 Canadians surveyed said they often or sometimes wished they had someone to talk to. It may surprise you to learn that women under the age of 35 expressed more feelings of loneliness than any other group.

And, that isolation becomes a slippery slope which can result in physical and mental illness, increased hospitalization and healthcare costs, even premature death.

With our neighbourhoods changing where we often don’t know our neighbours, the chance of social isolation increases, as does the loneliness factor.

So what can we do about this social epidemic?

Britain is leading the way, with the recent appointment of a Minister of Loneliness to combat “the sad reality of modern life.” The minister’s mandate will be to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, their caregivers and by those who have no one to talk to.

Taking it one step further, the English town of Burnham-on-Sea has installed “chat” benches in their local parks as a means to combat loneliness. The sign on the bench reads, “Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.”

What a lovely and creative solution to help alleviate loneliness. Engaging someone in a conversation. Two people talking face to face – what an original concept!

And British family doctors are writing out “social prescriptions” for art, dancing and cooking classes! You don’t need a pill for that.

Let’s get our local politicians and activists onto this idea by making our community even more age-friendly than it already is.

I’ll light a candle to that!

April Lewis is the local communications director for CARP, a national group committed to a ‘New Vision of Aging for Canada.’

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