human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

A reflection on loneliness after weeks of lockdown

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It was Mother Theresa who first uttered the truism that ‘Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty’. The COVID-19 virus, with its consequences of long periods of lockdown, and sometimes actual isolation, has highlighted how that kind of poverty blights lives. Most people have been affected in some measure but, as ever with poverty, there are those most vulnerable groups who are stung most by its poison: the elderly in care homes not being able to touch and hug their loved ones; those with dementia not understanding why their grand-daughter can only smile through a window and not step into the room as they batter on the glass in the sad frustration of not being embraced; the young whose friendships can continue or begin only with apps or visual images which can misshape and reify personalities rather than encourage a physical presence leading possibly to a joyous encounter; workers who do not know whether they will have jobs or feel as if they are being rejected by the system. Even the self-styled strong are buckling.

Loneliness as a societal problem did not begin with the coronavirus. It began as such, according to a study in 1940, at the time when Hitler was threatening war. Men were being dragooned into the army facing the battle field while their womenfolk and children languished alone at home. Loneliness hit them all. In addition, since the late 1960s/1970s, most of our societies in Europe have become less communitarian and more individualistic. When I was young in the 1960s, it was natural, when my maternal grandfather died, that my bereaved grandmother would be cared for by one of her five children. She came to our small flat and, as a teenager, I had to share a room with my grannie. She was never lonely again.

Taking a relative into one’s home is the exception now rather than the rule. This societal change is one of the deep causes of loneliness among the elderly. When I visited the programmes of Caritas Hong Kong, the staff showed me a care home for the elderly which even a generation before was unknown in Chinese culture. When I visited one in Czechia, one lady said that she had come there to die but Caritas had made her want to live.