Last time I was at the post office, I saw an elderly lady at the head of the queue chatting with the clerk as if no one else was waiting. With a kind voice, she detailed her plans for the rest of the day.
I've witnessed this scene plenty of times, and perhaps you have as well: older people striking up long conversations at the doctor's office, in the supermarket or on the bus. We younger people usually shrug and think they have all the time in the world. But according to experts, there might be another explanation: loneliness.
While we try to navigate a chaotic world, it seems a large part of the population has been forgotten.The migration crisis, Brexit and the populist upsurge dominate the news, leaving little space to talk about the mental health of the elderly.
But the United Kingdom and The Netherlands are finding ways to solve this problem.
At the start of the year, the government in Westminster announced it would appoint a minister to tackle the “epidemic” of loneliness affecting the UK.
Two months later, the Dutch health minister announced he would set aside 26 million euros to alleviate to loneliness among the country’s elderly population.
According to Age UK, 1.2 million elderly people are chronically lonely. Based on the charity’s research, more than 1 million older people in the UK regularly go without talking to a family member, a friend or a neighbor for an entire month. In the Netherlands, 700,000 elderly confessed to feeling painfully lonely.
This is not a British or Dutch phenomenon. It affects most of Europe.
According to a report published by Eurostat in 2017, 6% of Europeans feel lonely: they have no one to ask for help and no one with whom to discuss personal matters. Italy and France are among the worst affected.
Although loneliness knows no age, the elderly are particularly isolated, especially men and people over 75. Retirement, the death of a partner, health issues, financial difficulties and lack of transportation all can lead to isolation.
If we look at the continent as a whole, we can see regional differences based on income, living conditions and historical aspects. As Thomas Hansen and Britt Slagvold explained in a 2015 study, loneliness in Eastern Europe often has roots in financial challenges brought by the transition from communism to democracy.
Based on extensive research conducted in this field it’s now clear that loneliness can have serious health consequences.
Isolation has been linked to the weakening of the immune system, malnutrition, insomnia, an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and psychiatric disorders such as depression, alcoholism and sleep problems. It's no wonder loneliness is often referred to as an epidemic. One study concluded that it could be deadlier than obesity.
The good news is that the ill effects of loneliness can easily be reversed.
The British National Health Service (NHS) advises people to do simple things such as inviting acquaintances over for tea or picking up the phone and calling old friends. Learning how to use social media platforms or video chat services also can help isolated people keep in touch with far away friends and family. Joining walking groups, book clubs or faith groups nearby can provide a new community to people. In certain countries, charities have been recruiting young volunteers to visit or even reside with elderly citizens.
The UK and the Netherlands recognize that loneliness requires more than a passive approach. It needs a systemic solution because it may one day affect us all. As these two nations take the lead, other countries of our rapidly aging "old continent" would do well to pay close attention. And follow close behind.