Modern life can make existence a lonely challenge. Boxed into small – but fully wired – apartments, or living in suburbs where we need a car just to go for a litre of milk, we tend to live in our own little world. However, there’s a problem with this fast-tracked individualistic lifestyle, and it’s a growing health issue for communities. The problem is loneliness, which is on the increase across all age groups, and is expected to continue rising as populations in Canada age.
And this problem is especially acute during festivals such as Thanksgiving, Hannukah and Christmas. While many of us look forward to time with friends and family, some people dread these times. A moving, award-winning article, titled, “An Epidemic of Loneliness,” from the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, highlights the story of a young doctor working in a hospital during the run-up to Christmas, with staff busily sending people home to be with their families. However, one patient, a woman he calls Doris, complained of a new ache or pain every day. Each time, the doctor would conscientiously send her for a new test, thus extending her stay; but the test always came back negative. In time, he understood that her pain was loneliness – she saw the hospital as a last resort for those like her, who have no family at this time of year. He wrote his diagnosis:….
“I wish I could prescribe her some antidepressants and be satisfied that I had done my best, but the truth is she’s not clinically depressed. It’s just that she has been left behind by a world that no longer revolves around her, not even the littlest bit of it.
“There are probably thousands like her – men and women who have lived a lot and loved a lot. Men and women who are not yet done with being ferocious and bright but for whom time now stands empty as they wait in homes full of silence; their only misunderstanding to have lived to an age when they are no longer coveted by a society addicted to youth.”
What was so touching in this story is the young doctor’s journey in learning to understand his patient, and his compassion for her. The hug this doctor gave Doris showed a real caring, and made a genuine difference to her Christmas – he took the time to understand her real pain and need, and he reached out to her in compassion.
In some cases, loneliness can produce real health issues. A recent article from Live Science by Stephanie Pappas discusses research that shows how long-term social isolation – and the resulting loneliness – tends to negatively impact the body’s immune system and overall health. Doris, like many others, suffers from loneliness that is made worse during holiday events.
It’s not just older persons who feel the isolating sense of loneliness. Newcomers to our city, foreign students, immigrants from different cultures, the shy or socially awkward often feel the sadness of being lonely. Maybe your neighbor, co-worker or study buddy at school hide their sense of isolation with bright smiles, but we are so busy that we do not notice.
A couple of years ago my family joined in a program at the University of Victoria that matched families with foreign students who were alone during these holiday periods. We took two – a graduate student from China and a first year student from India. We had never met them before, and they didn’t know each other. Getting beyond the introductions, learning about them and their families and traditions was interesting, but what was special was the real connection we built with these two young people. It was the laughter and sharing of a special day that still connects us today. An unexpected friendship and bond was formed with two people from different countries, cultures and languages with whom we shared the love and inclusiveness of our family.
These holiday seasons are the celebration of religious festivals that at their spiritual heart have messages of gratitude, compassion, inclusivity and love – that simple idea, to “… love your neighbour as yourself.” Living the teachings that are the foundation of these festivals would be the best gift any of us could give to a neighbour who is lonely. Sometimes we get so caught up in our family business that it feels very “exclusive” to those looking in. Our family has learned to watch out for that and to be careful about what it means to be more inclusive in our celebrations. It’s not just inviting others to dinner, but including them in the feeling that they are part of our universal family.
As 16th century theologian, poet and writer John Donne remarked,
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Healthy communities come about not just with more money, better food, education and lifestyles, but also with a strong sense of inclusiveness, compassion and connectedness. And if the studies are correct, this could not only mitigate loneliness but also create healthier citizens.