The poverty of the west is loneliness

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Pradip Rodrigues

Last week UK PM Theresa May appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, coincidentally a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the practice of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is unconstitutional stating that it can cause hallucinations, panic attacks, overt paranoia and difficulties with thinking among a whole slew of mental issues that ultimately end with prisoners becoming dangers to themselves rather than to society.

Indeed a study of California’s prison system from 1999 to 2004 prisoners in solitary confinement accounted for nearly half of all suicides. Another one found that 63 percent of suicides occurred among inmates locked in “special housing status,” such as solitary or in psychiatric seclusion cells.

But tragically what in the world outside prison walls suggests millions of ‘free’ people are prisoners of silence, condemned to solitary living and playing Solitaire their phones. Citizens in the ‘developed’ world are living an excruciating existence marked by solitary confinement.

Despite social media and video chats, a new study says that loneliness and social isolation should be considered a major public health hazard even deadlier than obesity.

According to Statistics Canada, as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians report feeling lonely. That number could be much higher because it takes courage being lonely.

The newly minted British minister of loneliness has her work cut out for her as she delves into the social and health issues caused by social isolation.

One study showed about 200,000 elderly people in the U.K. had not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in over a month. We have human rights activists campaigning against prisoners being held in solitary confinement because it is inhumane, but we as a society are condemning ourselves to a similar fate. All of us are at risk at some time of our lives. Good times don’t last forever.

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And lest we kid ourselves into believing only seniors are predisposed to loneliness we might want to consider the loneliness of, middle-aged people and teens.

In Canada according to the 2016 Census, people who live alone now account for 28.2 per cent of all households, more than the percentage of couples with children, couples without children, single-parent families, multiple family households and all other combinations of people living together. Across the pond in the UK there were 2.43 million 45 to 64-year-olds living on their own in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Rather belatedly governments around the world are coming to realize that like SARS and AIDS, loneliness is an epidemic that is ravaging the minds and bodies of millions of individuals by sending them into spiraling depressing, accelerating dementia and ailments that is bringing about their premature demise.

The American Psychological Association estimates up to 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. Job loss and redundancy as a result of technology is poised to affect millions of people, mostly men in the next few years. Unemployment and underemployment leaves individuals feeling hopeless, worthless and ashamed, this prompts them to socially isolate themselves and eventually shorten their lifespan.

We live in a hyper-connected virtual world which gives people the feeling of being connected without really connecting on any meaningful level. There was a time not so long ago when many adults didn’t think twice before making a phone call to a family member or a friend, but social media apps like Whatsapp while very convenient, has made it almost unnecessary to make a call. I know people who let their friends and families know that phone calls are rude and unwelcome if not preceded by a ‘warning’ message on Whatsapp! Call only if it is an emergency is the message most commonly heard.

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Teenagers are lonely
We seem to think that teenagers are doing okay because they are constantly on their phones talking to ‘friends’, the truth is that there are way too many lonely children and teenagers who are either unable or unwilling to communicate verbally with friends and increasingly with family. Observe most teenagers anywhere, they could be sitting next people they know and yet be texting away to someone whom they either haven’t seen in person in years or someone they met an hour earlier or someone they have never met in person.

Working from home
While technology is making it possible for more employees to work from home, many people find it horribly isolating in the long run because one eventually ends up never leaving the home and working as a team.

Middle-aged people
More people live alone and fewer are getting into long-term relationships. Often empty nesters find themselves with too much time on their hands once they’re through with child-raising duties, that gnawing loneliness reverberates in their spacious but empty homes filled with silence and memories of children that are now adults living on their own, often single, so no grandchildren on the horizon.

This Sunday I walked around a lake close to where I live and encountered a couple in their 80s who pointed out Cardinals (birds) I stopped to listen and they regaled me with bird stories and I realized how lonely they were and their fate could and possibly will be mine in a few short years. There were many millennials also out walking, naturally they had headphones that blocked out any sound of chirping birds or interactions with other human beings.

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I know many people simply visit malls and grocery stores not so much to shop but simply to see people and possibly have some conversation with sales associates. For many that is their only human interaction. But with self-checkout destined to eliminate the need to talk to a human being, malls in the not-so-distant future destined to be a relic of the past and the relentless growth of e-commerce notably Amazon, there will be even fewer opportunities to talk to real human beings.

The fentanyl epidemic currently raging across the continent is really a by-product of the loneliness epidemic and studies have pointed to a link between loneliness and substance abuse.

Another overlooked group of Canadians are new immigrants who are more prone to depression and loneliness than the general population of Canada. Language and cultural differences are often barriers, even cosmopolitan new immigrants find it hard to simply interact with established Canadians because in doing so would invade their privacy.

Billions of dollars in north America is spent on drug enforcement, escalating health costs and other social ills afflicting citizens from all walks of life. Finally governments and NGOs are shining a spotlight on the root cause of it all- Loneliness.

The late Mother Teresa famously said: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

In the rich world it is the fate and reality facing millions of people who would be better off being financially poor. Poverty of the west is loneliness.- CINEWS

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