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  • Lee-Anne Carter

The loneliness pandemic

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Why it took a pandemic to get us back together. Or, more poignantly, why did it take a pandemic to get us back together?


As a trend forecaster or futurist (whichever term you prefer), I was not terribly surprised to read that we have started moving out of cities and back to the country - in other words, more effectively returning to living in closer communities, and in closer proximity to nature. What is surprising, to me at least, is that it took a pandemic to make it happen.

Prior to the pandemic Urbanization was an increasing way of life, as well as an increasing concern. With 75% of the global population estimated to be living in a Mega City (over 10 million inhabitants) by 2050, that left 25% of the global population to feed and farm the world, which is not the best odds if you are a betting wo/man.

Not least, the cities themselves and the infrastructures surrounding them were being sorely tested. Transport, water, sewerage, food, farming, green lungs, green spaces in general were buckling under the weight of the migration into cities. But that was not the worst of it.

What was most distressing (well to me at least), was the incredible rise of isolation and loneliness, which is a key factor in decreasing mental health - occurring due to increasing urbanization. Ironic much? We were crowding into cities, living - literally - on top of one another, but connecting and interacting less (of course, there is also that little thing called technology, and living behind screens thrown into the mix).

I still have in my mind the newspaper report of an elderly Italian couple that were discovered in their city apartment by police. Their crying had alerted neighbours to call the police who subsequently, on arrival, found them both crying their hearts out - due to loneliness it transpires, and their desperate sadness at the state of the world they had garnered from the news. In true Italian form, the police cooked them pasta and sat around their little formica table chatting to them to alleviate the pain. The image is burned into my brain - a tiny little table with a plastic flower tablecloth and a uniformed policeman at the stove, with these two beautiful old souls sitting in front of two heaped plates of simple pasta. The description on the Italian police’s FB page was so beautiful it was almost poetry.

…“There isn't a crime. Jole and Michele are not victims of scams, as often happens to the elderly and no burglar came in the house. There's no one to save. This time, for the boys flying over, there is a more difficult task to perform. There are two lonely souls to reassure.“

The policemen that were called out, asked to access the pantry and then proceeded to cook up a simple meal - pasta with butter and cheese. As the FB page goes on to so beautifully state, a simple meal…"But with a precious ingredient: inside it is humanity."

It breaks my heart every time I think about it, two old people crying so hard the police were called, and this due to loneliness. Plus, they had each other. Imagine being completely on your own, which many people are, or have been forced into being, during Covid19.

I am not saying everyone that lives alone is lonely - the two are very different. In actual fact the rise in one-person households has been attributed, in the main, to a choice encompassing a major lifestyle shift for younger generations who are eschewing marriage and focusing on career, education and other personal goals. Statistically, by 2039, the number of one-person households is projected to rise to 10.7 million. In the EU, it is currently estimated that around one-third of households are single adults without children.

The phenomenon is global and, on the increase, so much so that restaurants, pre-Covid of course, were catering to solo diners on an ever-increasing scale. Emanating from Korea, eating and drinking alone (hon-bab and hon-sul) became an important new trend. Initially, it was thought to be the result of an increase in singles, but it soon became apparent it was a choice. By eating and/or drinking alone, people sought solitude to compensate for being constantly surrounded in densely populated Asian cities. This, of course, impacted upon other cultures and countries and, in the US for example, party-of-one diners increased by 62% in 2018 as solo dining became more acceptable.

But if you tap into google - “living alone” - a plethora of articles on how living alone is a risk factor for mortality, the higher risk of dementia, respiratory disease and depression... amongst others, pop up in a seemingly endless list.

And that is why it is really no surprise that we are returning full circle to the heady promise of community living. The absolute irony however being that now we are coming to understand the value, if not necessity, of human support, interaction and community - we now have to remain apart.

Again, this world is beyond crazy, no?

Rural enclaves are still considered or known - sometimes idealistically - for their community values. Their sense of solidarity and coming together.

According to the Guardian, in June and July, the number of buyer inquiries made to Rightmove, the UK’s largest online property website, from people living in 10 cities increased by 78% compared with the same period last year. And there was a 126% increase in people considering properties in village locations, compared with a 68% rise in people searching for towns.

Naturally, the overriding reason for many was the space - for more reasons than one - health of course was an overriding concern, not squashed together like sardines breathing a deadly virus over each other, the ability to get outdoors in backyards during forever ongoing lockdowns, as well as the more affordable housing (although if this trend continues that remains to be seen). Oh, plus the new one thrown in - WFH - so, no problem re the commute, to name just a few benefits.

But underneath all of the more capitalistic, money-saving and because it “makes good sense” reasons, I dare to suggest, was the psychological benefit of reconnecting - with community and nature. We are tribal at our core - hence the rise in tattoos over the past few years - denoting belonging to a tribe (even if subliminal for most people), and we desire support, company and connection. Actually, we more than desire it – we need it.

It takes a village to raise a child, as they say.

And it takes connection and community to assuage the loneliness and restore that one special- but much-needed life ingredient – humanity.


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