I’m fond of arguing that the Ten Commandments was a very political document. Notice it’s aimed at men? Notice that women aren’t protected, much less children? That’s because men had all the power. No one has said they already knew this or that I was wrong.
I thought of the Ten Commandments when a friend from Amsterdam wrote me about a recent experience of hers:
A very old man asked me to come to his apartment, and he would donate a bike to the project.Â I went over to get it, and it was half a bike, and it was locked to a pole…had obviously been there for years.Â The temperature was well below zero. Â It became clear that he was in fact super-lonely, and torn between usual Dutch suspicion of strangers… and desperation for human contact. Â He finally pleaded with me to come up to his apartment (where he obviously lived alone) but not before we spent 15 minutes trying to saw that rusty old bike loose, with his World War II-vintage hacksaw with missing teeth.
You may know that Dutch people are the tallest in the world, reflecting a very high standard of living. But — if this old man is not unusual — alleviating the loneliness of old people isn’t part of the Dutch social contract, admirable as it may be.
I recently watched the Frontline program Sick Around the World. It suggested that that old man isn’t unusual. In England, where doctor visits are free, a doctor said he has several patients who come weekly, purely because they’re lonely. In Japan, some patients have their blood pressure measured very often — presumably for the same reason. In Taiwan, if you see a doctor 20 times in one month someone from the government will come to talk to you. Not about loneliness — about overuse of medical care. The Frontline program made nothing of any of these facts, which were included to show that access was easy. That’s not all they show. What if the British doctor had said that several patients visit him often because they need water? Then we’d be shocked. Yet the idea that everyone needs human contact isn’t mysterious or controversial.
My explanation is there’s a double whammy: Not only do lonely old people have little power, it’s also clear that their problem (loneliness) isn’t caused by a “chemical imbalance”. So no drugs can be sold to treat it. And there’s no diagnostic category. It’s another example of gatekeeper syndrome. When these lonely old people exert what little power they have by visiting their doctor, the doctor — I’m assuming — doesn’t do anything to get rid of the loneliness. Even if you visit 20 times in a month.