Loneliness is not just a matter of being alone. The monk with his vow of silence may not feel lonely; the individual in an uncongenial group may feel very lonely indeed. So loneliness is a matter of mind and spirit as well as the body.
The richness of life lies in the companionship of a person with whom one has an emotional connection and perhaps a physical relationship, one who thinks in like terms and talks the same language. It is a person whose views on other people, the world in general, and God coincide. Unmarried people often find this in parents, so the loss of parents is perhaps unduly traumatic in their cases.
The majority of people get married and find most of these outlets in the other people if the marriage is happy. So bereavement, especially if untimely, is a prime cause of loneliness. Suddenly, the house is empty, there is nobody, even kind friends, children and relations, with whom one can quite communicate. The remedy? Time, and the determination to live the kind of life the other people would have hoped for. Remarriage? For some people, no doubt. Not for everybody. There is no real remedy for this kind of loneliness.
The fact is that widows and widowers, previously happily married, have a much-increased lifespan nowadays. To have to live alone from say, age sixty to ninety is no longer uncommon, and medical advances have to be counted as another prime cause of loneliness. It is not so long ago since people regarded survival beyond the age of fifty as a bonus. Today, the percentage of pensioners in western communities is constantly rising. So much social work, both municipal and private, has to be geared to the elderly, and so much of it to the lonely elderly. This is why loneliness as a social problem is increasingly important. Very often the problem is exacerbated by extreme old age and sickness. To become housebound compounds the problem.
Another reason for the loneliness of the elderly is the mobility of younger people. In Britain, the old tradition was that children would house their parents so that three generations might sit around the same fireside. Today, both job requirements and the cost of housing in or near the great conurbations mean that the young family moves away and can only pay a very occasional visit to the elderly parents. The late 20th century is seeing the collapse of the ‘nuclear’ family, and the old concept of mutual responsibility seems to be ebbing away. This means that a wide variety of social provisions, ranging from subsidised travel to ‘meals on wheels’ to home nursing has to be made today by local authorities and charitable organisations.
The problem is less acute in country areas and sometimes in the certain area of the conurbations, where the old concept of community and neighbourliness is still extant. There is less need to be lonely in a village, where all residents are traditionally interested in each other. This mutual support is very noticeable in e.g. many villages in South Wales, where there are much unemployment and a degree of poverty. The flight of the young, however, also applies to villages, especially in agricultural areas, where farm work is no longer labour-intensive and where property prices have been pushed up by second-home owners.
Another cause of loneliness in urban areas is the unsuitability of post-war rehousing, much of it erected on old bomb sites. In the 60s, tower blocks and large areas of low-rises flats and maisonettes were ‘in’; today it is realised that all this was a gigantic mistake, and many such complexes are being demolished to make way for old-style housing. The problems connected with steels and concrete are, firstly anonymity; also depressing outlooks, vandalism and crime. Many elderly people live in fear. They install impregnable front doors, which impede the emergency services in the event of physical collapse or fire.
What of the young? Many are, for different reasons, just as lonely as the elderly. In Britain, the suicide rate among them is increasing. Despair and loneliness of the spirit are the fundamental causes. Bullying, unpopularity at school, anxiety about examination results and job prospects all make for a feeling of isolation. Some of this may be self-inflicted; the young, as well as the cold, have character defects. Yet there is a great need for counselling and reassurance, certainly affection. The feeling of being excluded from society leads to gang membership and crime, often drug-related.
Finally, the decline of religion has had its effects. If a person of any age has a faith and belief in God’s love, a fundamental reason for living is imparted and this does much to counteract loneliness.
There are no ready-made solutions.