Theo van Tilburg, sociologist at the VU Amsterdam, has studied loneliness among elderly Dutch people. “It’s definitely not an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness, but we do have a problem.”
Tell us about loneliness in the Netherlands.
“Our research has shown that elderly people today are less lonely than they were in 1992. We had thought that declining church membership, the disappearance of close-knit neighbourhood communities and individualisation would result in more loneliness. The media even suggests that the western world is currently undergoing a kind of loneliness epidemic. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.”
Do these results mean that loneliness is decreasing?
“No. The study deals with an individual’s likelihood to become lonely as they age. That likelihood is decreasing. But loneliness is still a big problem at the collective level, because the number of elderly people is growing.”
“You can still be lonely, even if you have a partner, simply by living parallel lives.”
What did the research entail?
“It’s a long-term study, in which we asked 5,100 elderly people born between 1908 and 1957 about topics related to loneliness. New generations are constantly added, so we have a good idea of the changes that have taken place.”
“We differentiate between social loneliness – not belonging to a group – and emotional loneliness – lacking a close bond to another person. Someone might not know enough people, or they might know enough people, but the quality of their contact isn’t satisfactory enough. “You can still be lonely, even if you have a partner, simply by living parallel lives.”
“The problem was put into sharp focus recently, when a woman was found in her house who had been dead for 10 years.”
Why do you think this ‘loneliness trend’ started?
“People are increasingly aware that loneliness is a problem. It was put into sharp focus recently, when a woman was found in her house who had been dead for 10 years. Everyone thought it was a shame. In 2005, a coalition was formed to raise awareness of loneliness among elderly people, in recognition of the enormous health effect that loneliness has.”
What kind of complaints are related to loneliness?
“People start to become unhappy. They want to ask for help, but aren’t sure what the problem is, so they turn to the health care system. They come to the general practitioner with all sorts of vague complaints. It also leads to serious health problems like depression, which reduces their life expectancy by up to four years on average.”
“The social pain feels like physical pain, but there’s not a pill to treat it.”
What do you feel when you hear their stories?
“Some of the stories are extremely sad. They often deal with people who have been in a lonesome situation for a very long time, and can’t find their way out of it. They sit at home alone all day, don’t have any social contacts, and maybe only exchange a few words with the cashier at the supermarket. The social pain feels like physical pain, but there’s not a pill to treat it.”
Is there a taboo about loneliness?
“The threshold to admit that you’re lonely is fairly high. It helps that there’s more attention paid to the subject in the media, but nobody says: ‘I’m lonely’ at a birthday party. Expressing vulnerability just isn’t part of Dutch culture. Unfortunately, it’s the only option for changing the situation.”
“Try to get inside the front door. Simply giving someone a bouquet of flowers doesn’t help.”
What is the best thing to do when you’re lonely.
“The best way to start is to simply do something. Waiting isn’t an option. Social contact won’t simply come to you. Try joining a club or looking for a series of activities. One-time outings won’t solve the problem. The best thing is probably to enrol in a course where you can learn how to make new contacts and build on existing friendships.”
Say that I want to do something for lonesome elderly people. What can I do?
“You can volunteer as a buddy or for initiatives like the Luisterlijn, a telephone aid service. If you have the idea that someone you know doesn’t get a lot of visitors, ask if they’d mind if you helped them with a chore around the house or doing the shopping. “Try to get inside the front door. Simply giving someone a bouquet of flowers doesn’t help.”