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The Scourge of Loneliness

During this festive period, it can be hard to imagine that there are people among us who are suffering from loneliness and depression. However, it is a well-known truth among healthcare workers that these festive seasons bring with them a spike in loneliness, depression and even suicide. The reasons for this may be multiple. Seeing so many happy, contented people sharing each other’s love and company can be particularly hard on those of us who may be lonely or isolated, as this brings our own situation into sharp contrast. In addition these are often times of reminiscence, and reflecting on happier times gone by can be particularly painful. This is particularly painful for those of us who may feel left behind, such as older people, the infirm and the socially isolated. What to do? How can we combat this terrible scourge at a time of joy and goodwill?

Before we delve into this any further, it is worth making a distinction between loneliness and simply being alone. Many of us enjoy our own company and relish the idea of some ‘alone time’. This is very different from loneliness, which really implies an unwelcome and detrimental enforced isolation often due to circumstances beyond our control. While voluntarily seeking one’s own company can often be a positive thing, loneliness on the other hand brings with it many detrimental and unwanted consequences to our well-being, physical and mental health and to our feelings of self-worth. 

Some of us are more susceptible to loneliness than others, and it can creep up on us unrecognised. Any situation that increases our isolation may lead to loneliness. These often accompany significant life events, such as the death of a spouse or close relative, or divorce. In addition, significant changes in our living circumstances, such as moving house or losing one’s job, can also bring about loneliness. At first we may not recognise what is happening. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we need the time away from others, and to retreat into our own seclusion. However this often leads to a spiral of isolation, loneliness and hopelessness.

So, how to deal with loneliness? The first thing to recognise is that we are not alone. Often loneliness may seem like a unique and devastating condition that we alone may be suffering, but it is worth remembering that loneliness affects all of us at one time or another, and that there are many people who may be suffering in silence because they cannot imagine that others may be suffering the same plight as they are. In addition, loneliness in today’s society brings with it a stigma, so we are often reluctant to share our burden with others. Recognising that we are not alone can be a powerful first step to tackling this difficult problem.

The next step is to find the support that we need. Think of the people who have been a part of our lives in the past, and reach out to them. Asking for help and seeking the company of others is not a sign of weakness, it’s a part of our humanity. Even if we cannot think of anyone to contact, remember there are many organisations that are willing to provide the kind of support needed. In Trinidad and Tobago, we have organisations such as Lifeline (800-5588), GROOTS (384-4722) and Families in Action (628-2333), all of whom provide professional, confidential support to those in need.

Finally, once we engage with the help and support we need, it is worth remembering that dealing with loneliness may not be a ‘quick fix’. Even when we get help and start to turn things around, the underlying reasons for slipping into loneliness may still be there. For example we may have lost a loved one and they may be difficult or impossible to replace. Similarly, physical disability may make it that much more difficult for us to stay engaged with the people around us. Acknowledging that the path out of loneliness can be long and uncertain can sometimes help us to persevere, and ask for help when the going gets tough.

Many of us may have older relatives who have become isolated and reclusive, but we are unsure how to deal with this. We can be a catalyst for positive change in the lives of these people, but we often find it hard to make the first move. Here are some simple tips on reaching out to our estranged and isolated friends and relatives. Firstly, any excuse will do! Find a reason to call, message or simply pop around for a chat. The old cliche that “I was in the neighbourhood” actually works and can be an effective, if not-so-subtle ice breaker! Secondly, make sure you have a plan to sustain your contact with them. Make sure that this is concrete and achievable. For example, you can make a commitment to pass by once a month, or call every Friday evening. This gives the person something to look forward to and starts the process of building trust between you. One other thing to remember, this type of connections should not be a one-off or only for special occasions like Christmas. If anything, visits around these times of year are not seen as particularly helpful by your isolated friend of relative as they often see these visits are the obligations of the season and don’t expect them to continue. Make sure that when you visit you make a longer term commitment and stick to it! You can make a world of difference to the life of a lonely family member!

Loneliness is a serious threat to the lives of many in our society, particularly older people, those with disabilities and those who are already socially isolated. Small actions on our part can make world of difference, but our commitment needs to be for the long term, not just for the holidays. Let’s all resolve to end the scourge of loneliness, and make the world a happier and healthier place!

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