A May 2018 Cigna poll cited by the author found that nearly half of all Americans report “sometimes or always” feeling alone.
Heat waves kill. But selectively. If you’re relatively young, healthy and have access to a lake or air conditioning, heat is at worst an irritant. Immobile urban seniors living alone without air conditioning are at risk.
In August of 2003, a dreadful heat wave washed across Europe. Some 35,000 people died; most of them fit the above profile. A disproportion of the deaths — 14,000 —occurred in France, prompting investigation, which revealed the uncomfortable fact that it was not material poverty that was the key factor in many of these deaths. Rather it was a form of social poverty; the victims had nobody who cared enough about them to check up on them and alleviate their distress.
Worse, in a way, was the fact that many of the victims did have adult children, who could not be bothered to interrupt their traditional August holiday at the seashore to take responsibility for their parents’ needs (some even requested their parents’ funerals be postponed until their scheduled return).
Recollection of this desperately sad narrative (which made a huge impression on me at the time and which I think of every time a heat wave hits us) is included in conservative cultural observer Mary Eberstadt’s latest book, Primal Screams: How the sexual revolution created identity politics. (You may wonder what identity politics and the sexual revolution have to do with heat waves in France, but trust me, the link is eloquently charted. )
The chapter in which the heat wave incident features concerns an epidemic of loneliness that is affecting great swaths of the populations in countries all over the world. The sexual revolution produced what Eberstadt calls a “Great Scattering,” the result of a breakdown of family as the pillar of society. She says, “(T)he human animal has been selected for familial forms of socialization that for many people no longer exist.”
It was once a great tragedy if one’s family was not intact. Now serial monogamy and one or more divorces is considered normal. It was once quite unusual for couples to choose a life that did not include children. Now childlessness is commonplace.
Where there are children, they are fewer than they once were. Many children have no siblings. Lifetime bachelorhood or “spinsterhood” was once rare. No longer. According to Eberstadt, “loneliness studies” are the hottest trend in sociology.
Her examples, like the French heat wave disaster, make one shudder. Every year in Japan, where childlessness is rampant, some 4,000 elderly Japanese people die without being discovered until the smell of their decomposing bodies alerts their neighbours. In fact, while obstetrics is fading as a profession in Japan, a new industry has arisen: firms that clean out the apartments of the isolated dead.
Insurance companies are offering policies that protect landlords in case a “lonely death” happens in their building. In Germany, Der Spiegel published an article, “Alone by the Millions”, a German Center of Gerontology report that one in four Germans over 70 receives less than a single visit a month by family or friends, and nearly one in 10 receives no visits whatsoever.
This new form of social poverty is, paradoxically, most evident in the world’s richest nations. A May 2018 Cigna poll cited by the author found that nearly half of all Americans report “sometimes or always” feeling alone, and that Generation Z — adults aged 18 to 22 — is the loneliest generation of all.
Loneliness is sad in itself, but it also has public health implications. Eberstadt cites studies showing a causal link between loneliness and overeating, higher stress levels, cardiovascular conditions and immune dysfunction.
My own family was not part of the Great Scattering. I am of that generation for whom marriage and a family were “givens” of life. Intact families were the norm. One not only had both parents around to make one feel safe and protected, one had siblings, as well as many cousins, uncles and aunts whose presence at weddings, bar mitzvahs, holiday parties and other ritual occasions we took for granted.
Parents died surrounded by family. Almost nobody in my large extended family moved out of Toronto (I am an anomaly). I never knew what loneliness in the real sense of the word meant growing up, because I never experienced it.
And I took it all for granted. I am like someone who has memories of growing up in a split-level suburban home and, revisiting it, finds that it was in fact a palatial mansion. Reading this book, I realize again and again that I dodged a sociological bullet.
Eberstadt is not optimistic. She comments on the loneliness epidemic: “The catastrophe of solitude among many of society’s most vulnerable members is just that: a catastrophe, and one that is only beginning.”
Barbara Kay is a columnist with Canada’s National Post, where this article was first published. Republished with permission.