We're more technologically connected than ever - yet despite and because of online activities, we also face a loneliness epidemic. Researchers have linked loneliness to decreased mental health, increased illness and even premature death.
A study last year found nearly one in three older New Zealanders spend their days alone.
Bay of Plenty Times Weekend writer Dawn Picken found it's not just elderly people battling isolation - younger residents are also struggling to find connection, with one local man saying seclusion nearly led him to suicide. How can we curb loneliness? And how can we bridge the chasm between unhappy solitude and contended camaraderie?
Alone Again (Naturally)
"What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast." - Olivia Laing, The Lonely City
Graeme asked we use only his first name. He's reserved and doesn't like the limelight, but would love company. Graeme's in his early 60s, but isn't working due to a traffic injury.
He says he survives on a pension while battling frustration and ACC.
"It's led to deterioration which makes it very difficult to go out with a physical and mental condition and nerve damage. I've developed a hypersensitive central nervous system." Graeme used to work in information technology. Now, he struggles to visit the supermarket.
"It's a very intense environment; it's overwhelming. Going even to small groups becomes very challenging. Chronic pain and fatigue develops, as well." Graeme says he's contacted dozens of organisations and all have turned him down.
"They say, no, ACC should help."
Graeme spends heaps of time alone at his Tauranga home, getting out for medical appointments. He has adult children nearby, but says they're busy with studies.
Visiting with his preschool-aged grandchildren exhausts him, as does venturing from home. He relies on cyber connections, but would like more face-to-face time.
"Most of the people I communicate with are overseas. I talk to people in Tauranga - 10 minutes is too far for them to drive to visit for a cup of tea." Graeme says he can't concentrate enough to read or watch much TV.
People see me and I don't look impaired or injured, so they think you're okay. They don't understand pain is exhausting and some days making a cup of coffee is more than can be managed."
Another Bay resident looking for connection says she enjoys meeting new people and has no trouble getting out. Renee West moved from Brisbane last October to be closer to her father, who suffered a stroke. She left behind an adult daughter and granddaughter in Australia, along with a successful business.
Even though she's working and has a partner, she still has bouts of loneliness.
"I thought with the spray tans - I was good in business and met a lot of people through that, I'm just trying to get it started here in the Mount. I honestly don't know where you meet people.
"I think when you get to your mid-40s, where do you go?" West isn't looking for a large number of friends, but a quality relationship.
"I would like to make one really good friend. That's what I need, just one girlfriend I can really talk to."
Why We're Lonely
"The pain of loneliness is a feeling that life is an emergency in need of immediate action…" -Psychology Today, February, 2019
Wikipedia says loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings and can be felt even when surrounded by other people. Causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and physical factors.
"Research has shown that loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in marriages, relationships, families, veterans, and those with successful careers."
A February, 2019 Psychology Today article says, "Underlying loneliness are deep-rooted feelings, chief of which are envy, greed, and jealousy – in a highly nuanced fashion. The lonely feelings of incompleteness can make one feel consciously inferior..."
The author says isolation results in clinginess - to people and to stuff. "The pain of loneliness is a feeling that life is an emergency in need of immediate action—forming connections at all costs."
Rotorua psychologist Debbie Heron says loneliness is a common concern among clients and a cycle that can be hard to break.
"If someone is depressed because there's no one to meet with them, it can make depression worse or prolong the person getting better. It becomes a catch-22, where physical or mental illness have isolated you and you become more lonely."
Heron says people who have a support system can better navigate major life issues than those who go it alone.
"A lot of the work I do is getting people to get out and make connections. It helps mental health and improves ability to function and thrive, especially when people have anxiety. They become withdrawn, because they're so worried about what other people think."
Loneliness carries a stigma - making it hard to admit you need help. Olivia Laing, in The Lonely City, writes, "Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee."
Modern Life and Lost Connections
"Social media hasn't got that...human context." -Debbie Heron, Rotorua psychologist
Our population is ageing, more of us live alone and some of us are busier than ever. The combination has caused an increasing percentage of us - not just elderly people - to feel lonely.
While Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media sites abound, they're actually driving us into a state of loneliness, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh.
The study said spending too much time on social media "may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives".
According to the study, people who use social media more than two hours a day are twice as likely to feel social isolation than those who spend half an hour on social media.
Heron says online forums provide opportunities for judging and comparing ourselves when we see what other people are doing.
"It can bring up lots of insecurities and self-esteem issues. People will have connections on social media, but what they're missing is real human connection with somebody that social media can't provide because it hasn't got that human context."
Nathan O'Callaghan is a South African transplant to Tauranga who has made friends through hobbies like kite surfing, free diving and cycling. The 26-year-old says even online grocery shopping has removed one platform where people can meet.
"If everyone's sitting inside actually shopping, there's not going to be anyone in the stores and a lot of times I have met people in a shopping centre. It is taking a personal connection away from people."
O'Callaghan encourages others to get out and do things they enjoy, even if it starts as a solo activity.
"That energy almost attracts people around you."
Statistics from the NZ Social Report 2016 show a higher percentage of singles reported loneliness than did people who had a partner. People in sole-parent households with one or more children (25.6 per cent) were more likely to report feeling lonely in the last four weeks than people who lived as couples with or without children (11.9 per cent and 9.5 percent respectively).
People not living in a family nucleus (18.9 per cent) were more likely than people living as couples to report feeling lonely.
People living in retirement villages and assisted living centres are at risk, too. Salvation Army senior services coordinator Sheryl Duffy-York says even though those communities offer activities, they don't suit everyone.
"Loneliness can be worse in a place like that because there's people around you and other people are getting visitors and you're not. So sometimes it's actually more in your face."
Turning Neighbours and Acquaintances into Friends
"I made lots of friendships through this [English] course - Zainab Swailam, Tauranga
Kristina Wainwright of Welcome Bay moved here from Sweden to be with her Kiwi husband in 1981. She says integrating was easy.
"I remember the first day we arrived. A neighbour came and said hello and neighbours all got together for a barbeque." Wainwright says New Zealand 38 years ago was a friendlier place than her home country. She worked in a play centre and made friends through her children.
"Tauranga was just a small town at the time. Now, people come and go and they're working and it's not the same." Wainwright says she experienced loneliness about a decade ago when her husband spent a lot of time pursuing hobbies. She's found balance now at home and partly through her connection to people at Multicultural Tauranga.
Zainab Swailam and her family moved to New Zealand from Egypt three years ago, seeking a more stable environment in which to raise three children, now aged 13, 11 and 8.
They shifted from Auckland to Tauranga two years ago for work. Swailam says she's had no trouble making connections.
"...mainly through activities. Our kids are very active with sports, arts and stuff. I've made lots of friendships with mothers from schools, sports...we start to organise play dates. That's how we started in Tauranga to make friends."
Another place Swailam found friends was through an English language class at Toi Ohomai. Even though she says her exam marks were high enough she didn't need the extra study, she felt the need to meet people.
"I was lucky there were free spots in the course and they accepted me. I made lots of friendships through this course because we're all migrants from different countries." Swailam says she remains friends with some of her former classmates.
Widespread and Dangerous Problem
"Loneliness led to near-suicide…" - anonymous Tauranga man, aged 41
A study reported by the Herald on Sunday last year showed nationally, 30 per cent of nearly 37,000 seniors assessed in 2017 reported spending eight hours or more alone during the day.
The NZ social report 2016 shows young people experience the highest rates of loneliness. Younger old people (65-75) have lower rates than any other age group, but the prevalence of loneliness rises again in the 75+ age group. Based on the revised question in the 2014 New Zealand General Social Survey (NZGSS), 13.9 per cent of the population aged 15 years and over reported feeling lonely all, most or some of the time during the last four weeks.
A 2015 Australian survey found one in eight young people aged 16–25 reported a very high intensity of loneliness.
An article in the National Institutes of Health (US) April 2019 says research has linked social isolation and loneliness to high risks for physical and mental conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease, and even death.
A Tauranga man, who didn't want his name used, says feeling isolated almost killed him. He says he's never been confident and has been uneasy meeting people since his early 20s.
"Loneliness led to near-suicide back then, but I'm pretty happy these days." Now aged 41, he says he talks to people while working in retail, but it doesn't fill the void.
"Currently there is almost no one I can talk to."
Bridging the Gap
"People are living longer and it's not always a nice picture." -Sheryl Duffy-York, Tauranga Salvation Army senior services coordinator
People working and volunteering in community and grassroots programmes are trying to patch the cracks of loneliness felt by many Bay residents. Salvation Army Tauranga's Duffy-York matches volunteers with people who want visits.
The lower age limit to receive help is normally 65, but Duffy-York says there's flexibility. Volunteers are background checked, carefully matched with seniors and expected to visit for at least one hour each week.
She says talking with more than 100 older people has made her realise the depth of local need.
"The whole thing is everybody's so busy, my family's so busy...the husband and wife are both working and don't have time to chat with their neighbour. It's tough making an existence these days.
"A lot of older people feel like they don't have anything to live for; their friends and family have died. People are living longer and it's not always a nice picture."
Duffy-York loves when people refer themselves and says friendships have grown from the programme. About 60 volunteers are in the system and she's seeking additional help.
"I know there's a lot more people in the community that we can serve."
Age Concern Tauranga's Accredited Visiting Service has around 100 clients, 90 volunteers and a waiting list of 11, according to staff member Pat Duckmanton.
"We desperately need volunteers." She says her best volunteers are retirees, though younger people are welcome, too. Duckmanton says seniors feel better knowing someone will visit with them once a week.
"Most have home help but they're there to do a job. Our visitors are there to sit down and have a cup of tea."
Age Concern Rotorua's visiting service has about 60 volunteers and 56 clients. Staff members say volunteers made 544 visits to homes this year and 43 to residential facilities.
"We need to take into consideration that some elderly are not suitable candidates for a visitor and we also have difficulty providing visitors for male clients," says manager Rory O'Rourke. The service accepts self-referrals and referrals from other agencies.
St John's Caring Caller programme provides free services throughout the Bay of Plenty. Community programmes manager Julie Taverner says Tauranga has 39 volunteers; Rotorua has 10.
"There is nothing quite as reassuring as a friendly voice on the end of a phone. For many of St John's Caring Caller clients, it is the only regular phone call they receive, and just having someone ask about your day can make all the difference to how you're feeling."
More informal meetings are happening thanks to an initiative by new Mount Maunganui resident Chris Glazewski. He started Cuppa Time on Facebook shortly after the March Christchurch tragedy.
"It got me thinking about how little I know about the people in my own community outside of my immediate circle." Glazewski posted on Facebook he would shout someone coffee. The group has grown to more than 300 members, who agree to shout two new people coffee.
Member Charlotte Hardy was about to embark on her third Cuppa Time catch up when we connected. She works from home in Tauranga and says it's nice as a new mum to meet new people.
"One of the ladies has been super fun and we have become friends. I feel like we have lots in common and I'd like to hang out with her in the future. It's good to take small risks in life doing fun new things. It really boosts your confidence and helps you see the forest and the trees out there in your own community."
Meetup Tauranga and Rotorua online facilitate in-person meetings for people who'd like to join in on quiz nights, walks, cycling, business talks, yoga, and many other activities.
Multicultural Tauranga also hosts Newcomers Network coffee mornings each Wednesday (see sidebar, Hello in Many Languages).
Time for Culture Change?
The Beatles asked where all the lonely people came from in their 1966 song, Eleanor Rigby. What they couldn't have known, more than 40 years ago, was that we'd be declaring a loneliness epidemic throughout Western societies.
Graeme, the Tauranga man whose injuries have left him home alone, says we need to connect more. It's not enough he says, that he sees one set of neighbours every two to three weeks at the letterbox.
"Nobody talks to each other anymore." He recalls the case of a Wellington man in his 70s who died in his apartment in 2016 and wasn't found for days. Late last month, the body of a 73-year-old man was found at an Auckland council flat.
The discovery happened five days after he died. His family has called on council to make more frequent checks on elderly tenants. Graeme says neither local nor central government has resources to do what neighbours used to - talk to each other.
"People are too busy with their own lives to have a proper community anymore...it really comes down to community to be aware of what's going on."
Hello in Many Languages
It's Wednesday morning when we visit the Newcomers Network coffee morning at Tauranga's Historic Village. Around 20 people gather around a long table at the Multicultural Tauranga office. During introductions, we meet several Kiwis, two Italians, plus people from Holland, Taiwan, China, South Africa, Korea, Philippines, Poland and Japan. Christine Wright is one of the Kiwis. She says she and her husband travelled during retirement from 2008 to 2015 before returning to Tauranga.
"We enjoyed meeting people so we come here to meet people from everywhere." Wright hosts couch surfers and has brought one of her visitors to the meeting. "We keep getting returnees and it's her third time staying with us. It keeps us young, I think."
100 Dates with Myself
For two weeks over school holidays, I'm an empty nester. No kids, no partner - just me and the dog. Thank goodness for the dog. Someone wrote putting our happiness in the hand of others is an exercise in disappointment management.
I have friends, nearly all of whom are coupled. Instead of waiting until a girlfriend is free, I decided to take myself out. At first, it was research. Then, it was fun.
Date 1: Quiz night. This happened several weeks ago at a bar near home. I used Meetup online to connect with other quizlings. I panicked when I first arrived because I had no idea what anyone looked like. I asked around and found them. They were welcoming and laughed a lot. I had fun, though sitting in a bar for more than two hours isn't usually my thing.
Dinner. Table for one feels only slightly weird. I've written travel stories where I'm the only diner. This time I didn't take notes. The garlic naan bread was steaming and so delicious, I don't think I wouldn't have noticed anyone else, anyways.
Movie. I visited Tivoli in Pāpāmoa East on Tuesday night, when tickets are discounted. I got to pick a movie few friends would've enjoyed called
The Ideal Palace (le Palais ideal).
It was in French with subtitles. I had the theatre to myself. Loved the movie and the experience.
Only 97 dates to go. Diane von Furstenberg nailed it when she said, "You're always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company." At least until my children return from holiday.
MSD Social Report: http://socialreport.msd.govt.nz/social-connectedness/loneliness.html
Age Concern - Accredited Visiting Service
Tauranga: 07 578 2541
Rotorua: 07 347 1539
0800 780 780.
Salvation Army www.salvationarmy.org.nz/get-help/seniors/senior-services-programme
(07) 578 4264
Tauranga Meetup: www.meetup.com/cities/nz/tauranga/
Rotorua Meetup: socialreport.msd.govt.nz/social-connectedness/loneliness.html
Cuppa Time: www.facebook.com/groups/cuppatimeforclosercommunities/
Multicultural Tauranga Newcomers' Network
Fending off Loneliness - Tips
· Join groups with like-minded people.
· Reach out to those in need.
· Talk to strangers in stores or other places you frequent.
· Consider engaging in a creative activity that involves others
. Plan a coffee or lunch with friends every week.
· Write a letter to someone you've lost touch with.
· Consider adopting or fostering a pet or volunteering at an animal shelter.
Source: Psychology Today
WHERE TO GET HELP
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 ?Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7) ?Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.