Widespread Loneliness

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.  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.  The temperature was well below zero.  It became clear that he was in fact super-lonely, and torn between usual Dutch suspicion of strangers… and desperation for human contact.  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.

19 Responses to “Widespread Loneliness”

  1. KenF Says:

    Your point is that the ten commandments require us to honor our father and mother, and if people followed this commandment, most old people would not feel the loneliness you describe?

  2. Sam Says:

    I’m fond of the Dutch, but when you say that “alleviating the loneliness of old people isn’t part of the Dutch social contract, admirable as it may be,” you’re putting it mildly. Have you seen that the Dutch state (which now leads the world in the proportion of the elderly who die from some sort of euthanizing) is now considering the provision of medical euthanasia to anyone 70 years old or older who expresses the thought that he or she is tired of living? I guess that’s at the very least a way of discouraging elderly Nederlanders from over-indulging in doctor’s visits!
    I’m not sure what the connection is to the 10 commandments and the male sex – but surely the 10 commandments are directed at 10 commonly-committed faults, such as adultery and not entertaining one’s parents. But in a world where the old are older than they’ve ever been, where eveyrone has some sort of old age pension, and where more people are childless by choice or by force (as in China), this is one of those sad “diseases of affluence” that is going to become more common.
    Except in the Netherlands, of course.

  3. Comment_Whatever Says:

    When the ten commandments said “Thou shall not kill” that was sexist how?

    What about the commandment to not worship false gods? Sexist how?

    Keeping the Lord’s day holy? Sexist how?

    “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. ” is DEFINITELY going to pose a problem for the chica’s, but then again.

    “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. ” is DEFINITELY going to be a problem for men.

    So really, I’ve just gone through five out of ten, and I’m failing to see your point.

    Maybe “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. “?

    Or “I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt not have any strange gods before me. “?

    No….. not really there either. Maybe you could explain where in the last three is the proof positive of sexism….. even by your standards.

  4. seth Says:

    The Ten Commandments are all about protecting men from other men — e.g., “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Men owned stuff. Men were killed by other men. (I’m assuming more men were killed than women or children. Revenge killings usually involve men being killed — I believe that’s what this is about.) Note the absence of: Thou shall not beat your wife. Thou shall not rape. Thou shall not beat your children. The religious stuff is merely what Moses wants. The commandments contain some of what men want (protection against more powerful men), some of what Moses wants. As in any deal, both sides get something.

  5. thehova Says:

    It’s a really difficult situation. My grandmother was a widow and was extremely lonely. Most of her friends had either passed away a moved.

    My family encouraged her to move to a retirement home in Florida to be around more people. Reluctantly she did and she was miserable and moved back to her previous home.

    You can’t just pressure senior citizens to live together and expect them to make deep friendships and overcome their loneliness. It has to be organic.

    Probably the best situation for a widow is for them to move into one of their children’s homes. But in our modern society, there are many legitimate obstacles to making that work.

  6. Jason Says:

    re: Comment_Whatever, On sexism, remember the full wording:
    “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
    It is not about adultery per se! It lists the possessions in descending order of property value: don’t covet anything belonging to your neighbor, like his wife.
    And so saying the commandment not to covet possessions is a problem for women is sexist on your part (an offensive stereotype about women) and misses the context of the commandment which is clearly directed at property-owning men.
    One can see the same things in the laws in the Bible on fines for crimes like rape–in which virgins and married women have steeper fines than women who are not “owned” by a man. The problem of rape is treated as a property-loss for the male-owner of the woman in the Bible!

  7. david Says:

    Seth,
    This post reminded me of the section on age discrimination in the original Freakonomics (where the only kind of discrimination they find in “The Weakest Link” is age discrimination).

    David

  8. seth Says:

    Kenf, I thought of the Ten Commandments because to me it is an example of how people without power are ignored. Lonely old people have very little power so their problem — loneliness — is ignored. That’s the connection.

  9. dilys Says:

    A troubling and increasingly relevant topic. I’m thinking of recent discussions of “power,” distinguishing domination power and prestige power. Whereas young lonely people have at least fantasies of both, and of the future bringing improvement, old people have neither, unless they are wealthy, well-connected, surrounded by loyal clan. And of course people’s willingness to associate with others seems inversely proportionate to the other’s prestige. In a restaurant where I worked, the older PR person (me) had to be careful not to sit at a table with the waiters in meetings, because my 50+ age was a contact “Cool Killer.” I think there has been a shift with television-and-internet saturation to an image-obsessed society (perceptually and emotionally). Whereas befriending or including an old person used to have some moral prestige, now in many circles it is image suicide.

    I think we need, quite practically, to self-experiment on loneliness, rather like Seth’s work on faces in the morning to alleviate depression. Certainly forced contact like churches or retirement homes, well, just shoot me now (please don’t).

    IMO, the Ten Commandments is about inner and outer order and the moral infrastructure for an ultimately happy and productive life. Of course it was directed to men, whose agency was much greater than women’s at that time. Doesn’t keep me from noticing I’m much happier when I don’t envy/covet, though it’s put in male terms in the text. Even though I wouldn’t want a donkey, and servants, who can find servants anyhow?

  10. seth Says:

    I think a blend of ChatRoulette and internet forums and chat rooms would do a lot to reduce loneliness — you could go online and chat (with audio & maybe visual) with people about common interests. I think hearing voices is important for reducing loneliness.

  11. Alexandra Carmichael Says:

    This reminds me of the article I just read about loneliness as a “socially transmitted disease” – spreading in social circles like obesity and happiness.

    http://expertvoices.nsdl.org/cornell-info204/2010/02/20/loneliness-a-socially-transmitted-disease/

  12. 1 Says:

    Many MDs have told me that some of their schizophrenic patients enjoy hearing voices in their head so much that they (the patients) didn’t want to increase their antipsychotic medication to reduce the voices.

  13. Nile Says:

    So much to say on this – I once did an hour radio show on loneliness. Let me leave it at this. Loneliness is VERY simple to cure. How? Introduce your self to as many people as you can. As you introduce yourself ask their name. Remember their name. You may have to write it down if you see the other person infrequently. Next time you see them use their name and ask about them. In time, less than a year, you will have many acquaintances, quite a few casual friends, some friends and a few best friends and you won’t be lonely any more. It really is that simple. Schools should teach this, doctors should teach this.

  14. MC Says:

    Makes sense to me. This explains why many old people, like my grandmother (who is a widow and lives alone) typically try to engage in random interactions several times a day: she’ll chat with the doctor, the people in the waiting room at the doctor’s, random people on the bus, random people in the park, at the store, etc., much to my parent’s amazement and anger (“you can’t go chatting up strangers like that! they can’t possibly be interested in what you have to say! And it’s creepy!” etc etc.).

  15. Edgar M. Says:

    Seth’s post reminds me of a time in the mid-1990s when I became quite depressed. I went to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an antidepressant drug to treat my chemical imbalance. When that drug didn’t work, we tried a series of other drugs, sometimes in combination, none of which really worked, either. (Incidentally, the drugs caused a rapid and quite dramatic weight gain, most of which has stayed with me to this day.)

    During that time, I was living alone in a new city and had few friends. I was working at a job that was quite inappropriate for me. My sleep habits were terrible (I’d stay up late at night watching sit-com reruns), I didn’t exercise, my finances were a mess, and I ate a lot of junk food. The psychiatrist didn’t address any of these issues, at least not in any substantial way. To do so would be to engage in low-status work, using Seth’s paradigm.

    Looking at this situation in retrospect, I think what I really needed was some sort of life coach who would offer practical help instead of hokey “chemical imbalance” theories.

  16. justin Says:

    I think there’s another angle at play here, which is that living by yourself tends to afford an individual total control over their environment with zero feedback. This control can allow an individual to cater to neurotic behaviors without consequence. Allowed to continue for long periods of time, it becomes harder for individuals to interact with other people not only because doing so means losing control, but also because the behaviors they’ve been doing alone may be come off neurotic to others, and thus be off putting.

    Assuming I’m anywhere near the mark here, solitude can beget solitude in a sort of downward spiral.

    The cure is, of course, interacting with people, but it can be hard to do if someone’s been alone for long enough. This is where having family can save the day — they have to put up with the loner. And if they stick to it, maybe they can help mitigate his/her neurotic behaviors. Spouses work in this regard, too.

    All of this is (in my view) tied into self-experimentation. We all make little experiments to try and control our environment — an environment typically populated by other individuals doing the same thing. When these experiments work, they are reinforced and we use them further. For a loner, it’s a lot more likely that odd-ball experiments are conducted that work for lack of accurate feedback mechanisms (other people saying — NO you can’t walk around with your hand constantly scratching your butt … bad example, but you can think of more).

  17. seth Says:

    yeah, I think there’s something to your downward spiral idea. I’ve been thinking along similar lines and I’ll blog about it soon.

  18. sr2323 Says:

    The 10 commandments ultimately protect women. If a woman commits adultery, then the man doesn’t know the paternity of her children, so he has no reason to protect or provide for her or her children.

    Not being murdered is nice too.

  19. G Says:

    Old folk should be directed to voluntary programmes where they can help and be helped.