Loneliness in Godzone

Picture this: An 80-year-old grandfather of four children – three boys and one girl – is picked up from his central city flat by his only son every Sunday. He drives him through suburban streets which he can now barely recognise. The once lush avenues of bungalows and villas seem gap-toothed here and there. Or they sport towering new townhouses which block sunlight from their neighbours.

The old man turns away from the sight of it but looks forward to his weekly dinner, and his playtime with his grandchildren. Time when he can push his favourite – his girl – on her swing and listen to her stories about friends and school; time when he can at least try to hit the tennis ball the boys call up for gentle outdoor cricket with Pop.

He has a runner for the few times he manages to connect with the ball, but evening falls prematurely even on these summer nights and curtails cricket and they’re summoned in for a  lamb roast. More talk, more warmth, but before long he feels a familiar chill creeping into his thoughts, even in the midst of the laughter and quickfire chat. He knows that in an hour or so he will be returned to his flat, where he will put on his electric blanket and try hard to find something to watch on telly before he goes to bed.

He’s been out doing everything families do – and yet he feels abandoned and once more alone with this ache he recognises as his own self of loneliness. He tried once to explain it to his son and left him perplexed and a little hurt because he thinks he’s doing the right thing each week. And worse, when he has the time, he pops in to see his father during the week. He can’t understand why his Dad feels lonely when he’s just seen the kids he loves so much.

His father knows all this but all he can say is that that being with them – then leaving all that gaiety and warmth behind, sharpens his sense of loneliness? That there’s only one thing worse – not seeing his family. He knows his time is running out, that he shouldn’t let this fug steal precious moments, but it’s how he feels and there seems to be no way out.

He’s one case history of loneliness which is now being recognised by governments around the world because of its impacts on public health. These are seen as risk factors for loneliness amongst older people in a 2012 survey by Age UK Oxfordshire, 2012:

  • Low income
  • Living alone
  • Being of an ethnic minority
  • Being gay or lesbian
  • Being over 80
  • Poor health and disability
  • Reduced mobility
  • Cognitive and sensory impairment
  • Living in deprived urban, or isolated rural area

Much of the research on loneliness built on a ground-breaking 2010 study which noted:

Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialised countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships. Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. Many also delay getting married and having children. Likewise, more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common. In the UK, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general. Similarly, across the Atlantic, over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated.

Five years later research reported in the American Journal of Public Health showed, among other findings that the elderly – especially elderly women, often visited their doctors simply to have someone to talk to. Similar findings have been reported in Europe. In Sweden, researchers found that frail elders who were lonely used more outpatient services than those who were not lonely. This included contacts with a physician and more visits to an emergency department as an outpatient. Among elders in Ireland, loneliness was independently associated with emergency hospitalisation. And in Scotland, researchers found that among their sample of people aged 40 and 60 years, those who were lonely reported greater frequency of consultation with a general practitioner or family doctor.

Other findings: Negative health outcomes linked to loneliness include high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, disability, cognitive decline, and depression. Such morbidities may, in turn, create higher need for health care and be linked to higher health care utilisation, especially among older adults, who are more likely to suffer from multiple conditions.

In 2010, one in three adult New Zealanders (aged over 15 years) felt lonely to some degree in the last four weeks. This equates to an estimated 1.02 million people according to Statistics New Zealand.

‘This 1.02 million people includes 21,700 (0.7 percent) who felt lonely all of the time, 94,500 (3 percent) who felt lonely most of the time, 374,000 (12 percent) who felt lonely some of the time, and 526,000 (16 percent) who felt lonely a little of the time.’

Why are many Kiwis old and young, lonely? Some of the answers can be found at loneliness.org.nz. the website of the trust set up to help those who feel lonely. It delves into the drivers of loneliness and offers a range of solutions for young and old because in this area, no one size fits all. The website notes that loneliness relates to a lack of meaningful social connections.

‘Our ability to form meaningful social connections is affected by the social networks that are available in society. Over the last four decades there have been significant, and largely simultaneous, changes in society that, we believe, are contributing to increased feelings of loneliness within the New Zealand population.’

It points to key drivers like the rise of digital technology; Structural changes in the community; Structural changes in the workforce; Fragmentation of the family; and Other societal changes. So many changes so rapidly. Which makes you wonder: was British PM Maggie Thatcher right when she famously declared that “there is no such thing as society?”

Age Concern


Share this:
Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.