Summer. It’s a time of fun and friendship, sun and sea and, this year, sport. With the World Cup and Wimbledon injecting a festival feel across the world, many of us are now looking forward to an extended party with loved ones, catching some rays and indulging on ice cream and (Long Island) iced teas.
But for many people, summer isn’t a time of celebration. Instead, the long days and balmy nights – and the sense everyone is having fun – can create a sense of longing. Times and Trafalgar Squares may be thronging with tourists, but for those who are unable to travel, or have no one to travel with, that heavy feeling of loneliness can creep in.
For Lil, who is 85 years-old and has lived alone since losing her partner a decade ago, summer is an exercise in battling solitude. I met Lil in London seven years ago, so I know she keeps a busy schedule – film nights on Tuesdays, bingo on Wednesdays – because she “can’t bear to be between four walls.” When daylight drags into summer evenings, Lil takes a cab around her neighbourhood just to have someone to talk to. She arrives at the local fish and chip shop, where she snatches at conversation with hungry punters as they rush in and out for fast food – just to have someone to chat to.
This summer loneliness is not a rare phenomenon. Last year, one UK hotline for older people reported a 7% spike in calls from people over 55 in the first week of July – and its busiest day of the year was 7 August. 68% of callers reached out because they felt lonely or isolated. 90% lived alone. 54% reported having no one else to speak to. This side of the pond, studies have shown that three quarters of older people feel lonely; in the US, almost a third do.
And yet, as new loneliness minister Tracey Crouch powerfully told HuffPost’s Paul Waugh last week, that feeling of being left out or left behind is not uniquely a later life problem. With professional expectations, the proliferation of machine interaction, and FOMO (‘Fear of Missing Out’) heightened by the seasonal lifestyle brinkmanship of cocktail captures and hot dog legs on social media, young people, too, are suffering. And as Crouch said, the problem is trans-Atlantic: this year, a US poll found that people between 18 and 22 are most likely to report feeling lonely.
This issue matters because loneliness kills. It is as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It brings on heart attacks and strokes, dementia and depression. This makes sense when you consider that what makes us human is how we interact – how, amongst other species, it is our expression of empathy that marks us out. But it still may surprise people that while living with obesity increases the odds of dying early by 20%, and excessive drinking by 30%, living with loneliness – with too few relationships of depth or quality – increases our chance of premature death by up to a staggering 45%.
Clearly, in the UK, our government has begun to take this issue seriously. With an increased understanding that loneliness is bad for individuals, communities and our beloved National Health Service – with doctors reporting an increasing number of appointments taken by older people with no other condition than that they’re lonely – Theresa May has announced new funding, metrics and a cross-governmental strategy to follow the appointment of Crouch as minister.
But in Britain, as in the US, we know government can’t really fix this problem. Treasury departments can’t make friends for people and social security can’t help people to share the type of meaningful experiences that truly bond. Thankfully, there’s something we can all do to help meet the challenge.
Seven years ago, I started The Cares Family, which brings those two loneliest age groups – people over the age of 70 like Lil, and under the age of 40 like me – together to share time, new experiences, and friendship. Today, 8,000 older and younger people are involved, and similar new initiatives are springing up across Britain.
But participating in organised community is not the only way to make a difference. In fact, it may not even be the best way. I have found that I feel most connected when I feel I belong. That’s why I set up The Cares Family, and it’s why I often encourage friends to make authentic human contact to help them to feel the same way. This can be as simple as taking off your headphones and saying hello to the bus driver in the morning; being playful with strangers; waving across the street to the barber you visit once a month; or stopping and chatting with neighbours like Lil. Loneliness works both ways – and so does its solution.
So this summer, everyone should take their “five a day” – not just five sets of tennis or five minutes to enjoy a sunset; but a recommended five meaningful conversations in their community – conversations about love and loss, hope and heartbreak, mischief and misadventure. For us Brits, so accustomed to buttoning up, it may feel uncomfortable. But wherever you are, it may just save your life.
Alex Smith is Founder and CEO of The Cares Family and a 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow