Loneliness is not just for Christmas

Tackling loneliness is in fact one of the objectives that Caritas has put forward for its plan of action. And not without good reason. According to a recent census, there are 44,463 citizens aged over 70. A significant number of them live alone, without family or friends

Last Christmas, around 440 people turned up for a Christmas lunch for the Lonely, organised by Caritas and the Archbishop’s Curia. This annual event has been increasing in popularity over the years: the attendance has in fact doubled since 2016.

But while this has made the event more enjoyable, it also indicates the growing reality that more and more people – especially the elderly, and other vulnerable groups – are finding themselves alone.

This sentiment was perhaps best described by one of those present for the occasion, who said that “It is better not to have anything to eat, than not to have company.”

Tackling loneliness is in fact one of the objectives that Caritas has put forward for its plan of action. And not without good reason. According to a recent census, there are 44,463 citizens aged over 70. A significant number of them live alone, without family or friends.

One particularly poignant reminder of this came in 2016: when the lifeless body of a 71-year-old man was discovered, partly eaten by his own dog. The deceased had been dead for around eight weeks, before police broke down the door to his residence and made the grim discovery. The incident was shocking at the time; but as with so many other issues, the outrage has been forgotten… as have many other thousands of people, who likewise live in complete isolation.

Up to a point, our lifestyle is pushing more people into seclusion, regardless of age. Though the world has become increasingly inter-connected, people are also increasingly withdrawing into an artificial reality of their own: social media offer the illusion of companionship and communication – but for many, it comes at the expense of genuine human contact.

We are perhaps more ‘connected’ than ever before; but we are also more isolated within our social media bubbles.

Modern communication also inundates the senses with eye-candy vying to be ‘clicked’ online. This can sometimes over-magnify the importance of trivial issues, while serving as a distraction from more silent, less conspicuous problems that deserves greater attention.  

And while loneliness is an issue at all times, it tends to be exacerbated during the Christmas season. Christmas is traditionally a time of cheer and merriment; but it is also projected as an opportunity to spend more time with family. People with no family, or in difficult circumstances, may therefore end up feeling more isolated and unhappy during this period.

The elderly are amongst the worst affected by this. Those who live long enough to reach a certain age often suffer the loss of some of their loved ones, or might fall ill and be unable to participate in things which they previously used to do together. A decrease in energy levels and mobility might act as barriers preventing the elderly from joining in on activities, leaving them feeling distant from others.

Yet as the Caritas initiative also shows, loneliness is not incurable. Sometimes a simple gesture of sitting with someone, sharing a drink, not necessarily saying anything but listening, can go a long way into alleviating the suffering.

Christmas, in itself, may have little to do with the underlying social problems; and there may even be a hint of hypocrisy in availing only of this season to be more mindful of such issues… while forgetting them at all other times.

But Christmas is also relevant for another reason. The traditional ‘Christmas spirit’ still endures, but it has been increasingly drowned out by the allure of commercialisation.

As befits a season now informally ‘opened’ by the recent innovation that is ‘Black Friday’ – an undisguised ritual celebrating consumer culture, and nothing more – Christmas also ups the pressure on society to consume more. In the fog of shopping, merriment and hectic travelling between one party and the next, stopping to observe may sound like a luxury.

It is easier to lose sight of social problems, with so many dazzling lights and shop window displays to distract us.

It therefore behooves us to take the opportunity of Christmas – arbitrary as it may be – to make an effort to be more mindful of the invisible minority who have less reason to share in the season of good cheer. Especially when they may be people within reach, and who could be helped with even a small gesture.

A minute of reflection could go a long way in helping us all understand the difficulties others around us are going through. Christmas is as good a time as any to take that minute from.

More in Editorial