All someone may want for Christmas is you, can you spare a little of your time for someone who’s alone?
This week the BBC shared the story of a man called Terrence who had spent 20 Christmas’s alone. He stood in his doorway crying tears of joy as carol singers came and sung his favourite carol especially for him. It reminded me of my Grandad who used to cry tears of joy whenever he saw us grandkids, or whenever anyone was kind, or actually even when he thought about how grateful he was for life.
Research commissioned by Age UK found that 500,000 older people across the UK are expecting to feel lonely this Christmas. For more than half of those, loneliness has become a ‘normal’ part of life with 300,000 over 65s not even having a conversation with family or friends for a month at a time.
Put simply not being part of a group causes psychological distress. Individual sociability may vary, but we are innately social beings and yearn to be accepted by other people. The psychological repercussions of being isolated from social interaction are often enormous. Prisoners are one population who are deliberately isolated as a form of punishment and studies show the impacts.
- The reported side-effects of solitary confinement are so severe that they have been officially termed ‘psychological torture’ in the International Review of the Red Cross. In a study of 100 prisoners kept in solitary confinement in one of California’s highest-security prisons, more than 80% suffered from mental health problems, including excessive worry and anxiety, irrational anger and confused thought processes. 77% of prisoners suffered chronic depression and 41% had experienced hallucinations.
- In 1997, Haney and Lynch Professors at the University of California, studied solitary confinement and found its impact includes ‘long-term emotional and even physical damage’, physical responses include gastro-intestinal, cardiovascular, back and joint pains, migraines, insomnia and profound fatigue. This result has been substantiated by numerous other independent studies.
Outside the prison system, many studies have looked into the impact of social isolation across society as a whole.
- A study led by Professor Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London looked at 6500 people for 7 years and found that being isolated from family and friends increased the risk of death by 26%. This was not only because of the emotional warmth provided that buffered the impact of physical conditions but also the advice regarding things like medication and health.
- In studies of male mental health, social isolation has also been repeatedly identified as the most important factor contributing to suicide attempts.
People’s response to Terrence’s isolation has been so positive that he won’t be alone this Christmas yet so many still will. The study by Age UK also found that for half a million older people, Christmas can be something to dread, not just because they are alone but because it brings back too many memories of people who have passed away and happier times. I know I miss my Dad a great deal at Christmas, but I’m lucky not to be alone – I have family and children who make it all feel magical.
We have all experienced the downside of group dynamics: the anxiety and pain of exclusion even if that doesn’t mean being literally alone. These dynamics play out, whether overtly or subtly, in offices, schools and communities every day. Even if we’re not alone in the sense of being physically isolated, most of us can recall a time when we’ve felt lonely. At one point when I was living in London, in a house full of friends and a city full of people it was one of the loneliest times in my life. Spending Christmas Day with a bunch of strangers on a beach in Australia when I was travelling was fun but also felt desperately lonely. How about you, have you ever felt lonely?
Wishing everyone a Happy Christmas – I hope you’re not alone or feeling lonely.
Photo: pexels.com courtesy of cottonbro