Lori Anderson: Don’t turn blind eye to the lonely

John Lewis's Christmas advertising campaign highlights how society tend to treat the elderly as if they live on another planet. Picture: PA
John Lewis's Christmas advertising campaign highlights how society tend to treat the elderly as if they live on another planet. Picture: PA
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LONELINESS is one of the major issues facing society, and it’s getting worse, writes Lori Anderson

In space, no-one can hear you scream with loneliness. On our little corner of earth, on sofas around the country, the sniffles and tears of viewers will be all too audible as John Lewis has released its latest festive heartbreaker and as you will all know by now, it concerns the lonely plight of the Man in the Moon. To an icy rendition of Half A World Away by Oasis, a little girl with an inquisitive nature and a powerful telescope spots an old man in a clapboard house living in a crater on the moon.

In a scene that echoes the Pixar movie UP she sends him a Christmas present carried aloft on a basket tied to helium balloons: it’s a telescope and now he too can see her and hopefully feels a little less alone.

Personally I thought it would exacerbate his loneliness to gaze down and see us all frolicking with our crackers and streamers and festive cheer. How will we react to this? Is it enough to simply snuggle down on the sofa and feel maudlin and mildly upset at the plight of a fictitious character?

The department store has labelled specific products whose profits will go directly to Age UK but I’d hope that the British public could be galvanised to act more directly, to make the effort to visit an elderly neighbour and check that they are coping and not simply assume that someone else will do so; to take time to listen when an elderly person begins a conversation in the supermarket queue or even join one of the many charities who seek to befriend and support the elderly. It would be more than a charitable act, it would be an astute investment, after all, we will all grow old, if we are lucky.

What may surprise many is that the emotions of loneliness appear to be almost 50 per cent heritable. A Dutch study of twins found that when one twin was feeling lonely, their twin brother or sister felt the same way in 48 per cent of cases even when environmental influences were taken into account.

This means that just over half or 52 per cent of our loneliness comes from our circumstance and environment and loneliness is spreading out like a grey, bleak fog throughout society. A study by the UK Mental Health Foundation found that only 22 per cent of people surveyed never felt lonely, while 42 per cent currently felt depressed through loneliness.

The German psychoanalyst Freida From-Reichmann was one of the first people among the psychological and medical community to recognise the destructive power of loneliness which she believed lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness. In 1959 Reichmann, who moved to America to escape the Nazi persecution of the Jews, wrote a critically acclaimed essay “On Loneliness” in which she defined loneliness as an interior, subjective experience and skewered it as “the want of intimacy”. She also captured why we so often retreat from lonely people because the ghost of loneliness “touches on our own possibility of loneliness” as she explained: “We evade it and feel guilty.”

Yet our evasion is the cruel component part of loneliness, because lonely people not only feel alone but also feel both rejected and abandoned. The effect of this rejection can be comparable to a physical pain.

A study by neuroscientists of how people react when they have been snubbed and rejected found that a specific part of the brain lights up, the dorsal interior cingulate cortext, since you ask, and that it is this specific part of the brain that lights up when the body feels physical pain.

As social animals, we are not designed to cope well on our own. Anthropologists believe our nervous system is wired to overreact to isolation and lack of human company as a means of driving us back to the warmth and security of the tribe. Advances in biology, the study of genes and neurobiology means that we now know that loneliness shakes up the molecules of our genes, cancerous tumours metastasize faster in lonely people.

A medical study of new students at Ohio State University found that those who were unhappy at not having yet made close friends displayed “body symptoms of distress”; they slept poorly and had high levels of cortisol, they also had higher than normal vascular resistance, which is caused by body tissue becoming inflamed and arteries narrowing, and high vascular resistance contributes to high blood pressure.

So what of our own men and women on the moon? The Royal Voluntary Service in Scotland reported a few years ago that 11 per cent of older people were in a position where their nearest child lived more than one hour’s drive away and so half of them enjoyed a visit every two to six months. In Scotland there are 408,000 people over 75, and by 2030 there will be 656,000, a rise of 248,000.

As Guy De Maupassant wrote: “Solitude is dangerous for the active mind. We need men who can think and talk around us. When we are alone for a long time, we people space with phantoms.”

The sad but unavoidable fact is that loneliness is not just an affliction of the old and it shouldn’t only be tackled at Christmas.