Beating the loneliness pandemic!
Columns, Over A Cup of Evening Tea

Beating the loneliness pandemic!

December 31, 2023

By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD

My last article about loneliness and what it is doing to our present-day society has unsurprisingly drawn a spate of responses from my readers, both young and old, over the last two weeks. I use the word ‘unsurprisingly’ because we all know how widespread is ‘the strange lonely feeling’ which haunts a great many people these days. Yes, gone are the days when some occasional individuals in our neighbourhood or among our friends or relatives used to complain of being left lonely and all alone, with no one to spend some time with them, let alone look after them and their day-to-day needs. It is estimated that on an average, about thirty five percent of people across the world, complain of feeling lonely, not just now and then, but on a regular basis. And, this is not just a problem of the aged, because an increasing number of those who are young too are being engulfed by this malady.

Having realised that just plain loneliness is disturbing and sometimes even ruining the lives of their citizens, many Governments have thought it sensible to do something seriously to beat this problem, which has now certainly assumed alarming proportions and has thus become almost a worldwide pandemic. That is why, the Governments of quite a few countries, across the world, have now appointed Ministers for loneliness, which may seem very strange and unusual, if not entirely comical. But that is a fact.

A ‘Ministry for Loneliness’ might sound like a poignant literary creation, from a work of fiction about scenarios to come in the future, but it is very much in existence, in the living present. In what has rightly been perceived as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, loneliness is best defined as the gaping chasm between how connected our minds and hearts yearn to be and how connected we actually are, in our daily lives. With almost forty percent of its citizens reporting that they were being increasingly overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness, on and off, Britain was the first country in the world to realise that something had to be done on a war-footing, to combat the problem before it became unbeatable.

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That is when Tracy Crouch was appointed as the first Minister for Loneliness in the Theresa May Cabinet. Close on the heels of this new development, Japan, another island nation, half a world apart, too felt that it needed to do something to handle the problem of loneliness that was bothering its fast-increasing geriatric population, which was the result of the increasing life expectancy of its people. So, Tetsushi Sakamoto became its first Minister for Loneliness.

Incidentally, Japan which has some monickers like Hara Kiri and Kamikaze for two of its rather strange and macabre traditions, also has a specific word for death due to loneliness and that word is Kodukushi. Although the problem of loneliness has been in existence for long, even before Covid-19 came on the scene, the global pandemic and the extended lockdowns that followed, have made loneliness even worse, particularly among groups that already were vexed with its bite.

Now, countries around the world are recognising the public health effects of loneliness and have deduced that it is closely associated with poor physical and mental health outcomes, including higher rates of, depression, cognitive decline and even mortality. As a result of this realisation, Government agencies and even citizens’ Self-Help Groups are evolving strategies and practical solutions to mitigate its impact.

For instance, in Britain, Royal mail workers are being tasked with checking on the state of the mental health and state of happiness of all older people, as a part of their delivery rounds and filing their reports to their social welfare authorities. But the question that comes to my mind is that with hardly anyone writing old-fashioned letters to anyone, using paper, how many people’s lives can be looked into even by the postal delivery personnel, who have hardly any letters to deliver?

So, what is it that we can do to tackle this very tricky but all too real problem? This is the question almost every one of the readers who responded to my last article, asked me. And, on my part, I started off trying to find answers, by discussing the options with a few of my like-minded friends.

We all felt that there are a few areas where we can begin and if we do it, I’m sure we will be heading in the right direction, although the destination we hope to reach, may still seem very distant. For a start, we can create small groups where we can encourage people, especially the elderly, who lead lonely lives in the community, to meet at least once a week at some convenient time and place and spend a little time just chatting.

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And, mark my word, just chatting, can be a great revealer and healer too, because people can then discuss their doubts, anxieties and apprehensions, which alone, can take away a good deal of their mental burden. This activity can be made easier if we create public spaces around our commercial areas and apartment blocks, with benches, toilets, cafes, telephone booths, chemists’ shops and basic health care centres surrounded by some refreshing greenery around, where people in need of some company can congregate.

Over many years, whenever I happen to go that way, I’ve been seeing this kind of a scenario, around the Jayanagar Shopping Complex in Bengaluru, although it is not accompanied by all the facilities I have spoken about. Come evening and you can see elderly people, many of them barely able to walk comfortably, attired in warm clothes, even when it is not too cold, arriving one by one, like roosting birds and occupying their self-designated regular places, next to their friends.

A coffee or tea seller, a peanut or popcorn vendor and a newspaper or boot polish boy, who too are the local regulars, are enough to polish their flagging spirits! They thus spend a happy hour and a half, till the fading daylight and enveloping dusk, silently tell them that it is time to get up and head back to their homes and solitude. That some of them could just not hear what their friends said, despite wearing their hearing aids and cupping their curved palms to their ears, does not seem to matter at all. Just the pretence of having understood what they did not hear and having seen the toothless smiles they flashed to each other, serve as the best medicine for all their aches and pains, both physical and mental, till the next evening!

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