THERE is a new affliction across much of the world, especially in the West. Unlike Covid or other viruses, it is not infectious, with symptoms that are not as immediately obvious; it creeps in insidiously, has been endemic for quite some time, and there is no vaccination yet available. It is not self-limiting and — unlike other viral infections — does not get better with time. Though not really new, it is beginning to draw attention — even make occasional headlines — only recently. This “disease” is loneliness, only now being recognized as a health hazard.
Its severity is indicated (possibly exaggerated) by statements like that from the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, who recently said that loneliness is as dangerous as smoking; it also significantly raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. The UK has created a Ministry of Loneliness, in recognition of the seriousness of the problem. The “power of one” is being overtaken by the loneliness, the pains, of being (al)one.
Many assume that this is an affliction limited to the developed West, that in the East — including India — our tradition of strong family bonding, within an ecosystem of community relationships, protects us from such isolation and loneliness. Our culture and values, it is argued, are a vaccine which ensures that we do not suffer this problem. It is true that multi-generational joint families are yet common (even the norm), despite the changing patterns of living and of migration. While migration, primarily for economic opportunities, has long been prevalent, anecdotal data indicates that it is more widespread and extensive than before, and leading to a break-up of the joint family.
The effect of in-country migration is resulting in two contrary impacts. On the one hand, as young people move out of their parental home — either for work in another location, or marriage (women, to their spouse’s home; men, for independent living) — parents are left to live by themselves. On the other hand, when both husband and wife are working, parents are invited to live with them to run the household, and often to be baby-sitters. In the former case, loneliness is inevitable; in the latter, despite being a joint-family household, loneliness results from everyone else (children and grandchildren, especially if the latter are school-going) being too busy. If “parents” is singular, with one of them having passed on, loneliness is even more severe.
In the middle class, the empty nest syndrome is widely prevalent. While some parents are invited to spend long periods with their sons/daughters, the working couple has little time for them. If they are abroad, the cultural mores of an alien land and the lack of a social network make solitude even more pronounced. As a result, emotionally-dependent, though financially-independent, elders feel isolated. In the case of the poor and those from the lower middle class, their financial situation amplifies the angst of neglect.
The joint family was seen as a bulwark against such isolation. Its apparent demise — though it is making a comeback in a new avatar (with the home being that of the children, rather than of their parents) — has been welcomed by some, since it is seen as a stifling and patriarchal construct. To the extent that nuclear families provide agency to women, they are welcome. Yet, there is need to balance this with the plight of elders, often left to fend for themselves and suffer loneliness.
The joint family, though, is not necessarily a safeguard: as many know, one can be lonely even in a crowd. Elders are now often seen as a burden: as a result, within joint families too, their physical, emotional, social and financial needs (including for medication and healthcare) are neglected. Worse, they are subject to mental and physical violence. In these respects, the plight of elder single women is worse. Modern life, with its hectic pace, work and social demands, and migration (domestic and international), combined with material wants (and so, financial needs) has exacerbated what has long been a subterranean problem. Clearly, loneliness is as much a problem amongst the poor as the rich; in India, as much as in the West.
Figures from the government indicate that as many as 18 percent of elders live alone or with their spouse (2021 data). Another telling statistic (from a study by Helpage India) is that even amongst those living with families, 35.7 percent are waiting for people to call them (a sure sign of loneliness). More worrisome is that amongst those living in age-care homes, 57 percent of males and 48 percent of women were suffering from moderate to severe depression. A national survey by Helpage India in 2022 says that though a majority (82 percent) of elders are living with their families, 59 percent want their family members to spend more time with them. This shows that even while staying with family, a majority of the elderly feel lonely. The same study found that 43.1 percent of elders feel they are neglected by younger generations and feel left out.
As in many other cases, technology creates both problems and solutions: devices (TV, laptops, and especially mobile phones) tend to alienate and individualize. It is quite common to see members of a household speaking on a phone, sending mails, or watching video on a personal device, rather than talking to one other. Elders, far less familiar with technology, are often unable to do most of this. On the other hand, TV is a boon for many elders, helping to pass time lost in a world of fantasy, sports or news. Those more familiar with tech are able to make video calls — seeing and speaking with friends and family anywhere on earth — or use other facets of tech.
Yet, at the end of the day, humans are social animals: we need to interact with other humans. Forming groups of elders, fostering inter-generational interaction, and focusing on staying active (“active aging”) may help. Similar approaches may be beneficial for younger people too. These could be feasible antidotes to the growing scourge of loneliness.
Kiran Karnik is a public policy analyst and author. His most recent book is ‘Decisive Decade: India 2030, Gazelle or Hippo’.