Banning loneliness is as important as banning hunger

Banning loneliness is as important as banning hunger

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Do you ever feel lonely? I’m not referring to an occasional time period when you might acutely feel alone. After awhile that loneliness passes as you get busy with making dinner or driving out purposefully to go food shopping. I’m talking about deep-seated, unremitting loneliness, where a person doesn’t leave his or her house most of the time and doesn’t think to call a friend. Perhaps the person is quite elderly and has outlived friends. Or perhaps that person struggles with depression and keeps to himself or herself, exacerbating the loneliness.

From what I have read lately, loneliness is not a good thing for one’s health. Indeed one of the recommendations for longevity is an active social circle. Whatever the age, loners in our society come to be suspect. People need to socialize and interact, or so the thinking goes.

There are statistics that correlate good health with a satisfying social life, particularly as we age. For some, this is easy. If a person is naturally outgoing, the fact that the world is filled with other people presents its own solution. One can get a part-time job, even if retired, and that usually brings along its own social structure, plus a few extra bucks. Sometimes part-time work isn’t so easy to find, but there are always groups that are grateful for a volunteer: hospitals, schools, churches, even businesses. We are forever running a classified ad asking for volunteers who might find it interesting and fun to work at a hometown newspaper, and we are seldom without someone, usually someone wonderful.

Because we live on an island that has many colleges and universities, there are always academic opportunities to avail oneself of, like the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute — formerly known as the Round Table — at Stony Brook University. There are a great variety of courses, including subjects one might have always wondered about but have been too busy to pursue.

Another source of learning and information is the neighborhood library, many of which offer courses, from understanding opera to understanding computers, at a nominal fee. By enrolling in some interest group or subject, one is likely to meet others with the same interests and perhaps strike up a friendship. At the very least, one can become a little smarter or at least a bit more knowledgeable.

That’s just a few social possibilities. But they require active seeking, and not everyone is blithely outgoing and comfortable in new situations. So what then?

My husband was shy pretty much all his life, but he discovered a way for the world to reach out to him. When he wasn’t working, he loved to take pictures. Behind the camera, he could be bold and interact with anyone who might be doing something that interested him. We ran many of his photographs in the newspaper, and readers appreciated the sense of place that the pictures conveyed and also contacted him with comments.

Eventually he was even invited by an art gallery to put up an exhibit of some of his favorite photos. I don’t have to tell you how he loved that and appreciated the feedback from the viewers. Now granted, not everyone has a wife with a newspaper, but it is my experience that most hometown newspapers will eagerly accept photos if they are reasonably good — and free.

Again, though, that sort of hobby takes a certain amount of initiative. Fortunately we live at a time when the need to reach out to those who may be struggling with loneliness has eventuated in a number of help groups, especially in Britain. There are centers in the U.K. manned by people, sometimes volunteers, who are there to lend a kind ear to those who call in to chat. The volunteers provide a valuable service in what has come to be seen as a public health issue. Sometimes these are trained and paid workers. Even fire brigades have been trained to recognize signs of isolation during their fire inspections. We should be sensitive to this most human need and do no less here.