Stephen McGinty: Loneliness can touch us all

Detail from Nighthawks ' artist Edward Hopper said he was painting the loneliness of a large city. Picture: Complimentary
Detail from Nighthawks ' artist Edward Hopper said he was painting the loneliness of a large city. Picture: Complimentary
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As the number of older people feeling isolated in Scotland becomes shockingly evident, it’s worth remembering that loneliness can touch us all, writes Stephen McGinty

As a child, I never liked Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles. I can’t remember when I first heard it, or where, but I do remember one occasion, of being squashed with my brother and two sisters into the back seat of my father’s Hillman Hunter and looking out onto the streets of Glasgow as the song played on the radio. Each time we passed an old woman in a headscarf and buttoned-up coat, towing a tartan shopping trolley, I’d think of the lyrics of the song and feel sad. Was she an Eleanor Rigby waiting by the window for someone to call?

As Paul McCartney sang:

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

In the past week or so, loneliness, a forgotten subject, meek, silent and largely ignored, has found a couple of champions. James Hunt, the health secretary for England and Wales, recently spoke out against what he described as the “national shame” of loneliness among the elderly: “Each and every lonely person has someone who could visit them and offer companionship,” he said. “A forgotten million who live among us.” Earlier this week, the Royal Voluntary Service in Scotland released a report highlighting how isolated our elderly have become as 20 per cent of people over 75 now have no contact with their nearest neighbour, while 34 per cent have a conversation with them once or twice a month. In a survey carried out for the RVS, elderly people said they either did not know their neighbours or felt they would be unwilling to help if asked. Almost half, 44 per cent, of older people in Scotland asked felt that people kept themselves to themselves and so were unapproachable, and 63 per cent of those over 75 felt Scotland had become a less friendly nation.

I can see why the elderly would feel this way. We haven’t much time for them. If you stand in a long supermarket queue and the elderly gentleman at the front is chatting to the cashier while paying, you can feel the queue’s collective tension. If the conversation continues for more than five seconds after change has been handed over, a “tut” will quickly echo out.

Anyone that delays us from our busy lives is generally treated as an inconvenience. We will all, at some point, have been lassoed into a conversation with an elderly person who needs to talk and who responds to even the smallest act of encouragement or questioning with a gratitude that makes you feel uncomfortable as you realise that this small exchange can mean so much to them. And yet loneliness is not a condition that automatically comes with a free bus pass. There are men and women in their eighties and nineties who live cherished lives, cocooned by family and friends, just as there are people in their twenties and thirties who feel isolated and alone.

All of us, at some point in our lives, will have felt lonely. The feeling of being disconnected, of not belonging, of feeling cast adrift has fuelled as many songs and books as has love. Bob Dylan sang: “Loneliness/Got a mind of it’s own/The more people around/The more you feel alone”.

And novelists have endlessly grappled with the subject. Sylvia Plath, the poet and novelist, wrote: “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small, cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfilment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”

The strange thing about loneliness is that despite everyone having a reasonable insight into how it feels, we remain so unsympathetic to those who are so afflicted. How many of us would have the courage to ask even a friend out, never mind a work colleague or stranger, on the grounds that we are feeling lonely? If someone is lonely, we think there is something wrong with them, that they are a social misfit, or difficult or strange, that they are, at the very least, someone with whom you wouldn’t honestly wish to spend time. The reality is that they are unfortunate, divorced, childless, without family, shy or depressed. When we are lonely, we have a lack, a want that can’t always be fulfilled. It is easy to be lonely in a crowd or in a conversation with someone with whom you don’t connect. This is why books are, for a time, an antidote to loneliness – a reader can have an emotional connection to a character, to their experiences that, for a few hours at least is like a balm on a wound.

Irish novelist Edna O’Brien put it well: “I like to hear about people’s lives, not just because I want to write about it, which has to be confessed, but because it’s lonely on earth, really, and two things make it less lonely. One is literature, which we have to try and save in this wicked and worried and crazy world. The other is meeting or talking with someone who actually, even for an hour, kind of enchants you. I don’t even mind if people tell me total lies. So long as there is that connectedness, with the imagination, and with the heart, and with what’s deepest in people. You don’t get that much. You get this regularised language, everything is so uniform. The individuality is getting lost.”

Yet there is one thing of which we should all be aware – loneliness is not good for the health or the heart. As John Steinbeck wrote in Of Mice and Men: “I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.” How sick, remains a matter of debate, but this week Age Scotland said the consequences were akin to smoking. James Lynch, author of The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, wrote: “It is high time for us to develop a more comprehensive physiological perspective, one that will help clarify the cardioprotective nature of community life and loving relationships, as well as the cardioprotective nature of healthy dialogue, and the cardioprotective benefits of our relationship to the rest of the natural, living world.”

Lonely people are more likely to take up habits that may ameliorate, for a time, their loneliness but in the long term are bad for their health, such as smoking, drinking and abusing both prescription and illicit drugs. But there is something about loneliness, that deep isolated sadness, that seems to seep down into our cells. A paper published in 2000, “Loneliness and Isolation: Modern Health Risk”, stated that lonely men had higher levels of a blood chemical linked to heart disease, while the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago found loneliness can add 30 points to blood pressure readings for men over 50. Lonely people also react poorly to stress.

Just as we are all part of the problem, so we can be part of the solution, at least for some. If you have an elderly neighbour, pop round, ask if there is anything you can do to help. Drill through that carapace of self-reliance and, for others, brush aside the withered self-esteem that makes some feel unworthy of assistance and to do this you need to ask specific questions: would they like a lift, or help with their shopping? Eventually you’ll hit upon something to which they will say yes. For surely it makes sense to try and fix a problem to which we may yet succumb?