Why has loneliness become so prevalent in Ireland, I asked Sean Moynihan, the Chief Executive of ALONE, who spoke to me in the wake of last Wednesday’s inaugural meeting of the Loneliness Taskforce at Leinster House. “That really is the question,” said Mr Moynihan, who collaborated with Senator Keith Swanwick (FF) in establishing this new and clearly necessary taskforce. “And it’s amazing to me, and sad in equal measure how loneliness has manifested itself in this country over the past few years. For me, I feel we’re dealing with a disease of our time: it’s ironic that it affects younger people who could have, for example, several hundred friends on Facebook, they might never be off WhatsApp and so on yet many of them feel so cut off and this isn’t just an issue facing elderly people in rural communities either.”
"Loneliness crosses the rural-urban divide," according to Senator and GP Keith Swanwick, who is chair of a new Loneliness Taskforce.
Mr Moynihan added: “To me, I look at it in very simple terms. People don’t tend to knock on people’s doors anymore without ringing them first. The inter-connections that used to happen on a daily basis in the past are not as strong as once they were: shops and banks have moved online, post offices are closing and main streets in many of our towns and villages are much quieter places nowadays in most instances. We simply don’t have as many places to build relationships nowadays and when you take smaller sized families into account, relatives moving away and in many instances never coming home on a permanent basis, there’s a myriad of reasons why loneliness has become such a major social issue right across the country. ALONE doesn’t want to leave older people – or younger people for that matter – feeling cut off, isolated or adrift – so I think that through this new taskforce, this is something we can act on and do something about. And it’s something we have to face with determination and approach in a manner that will galvanise the whole community, so that no person of any age is left in that painful situation of being isolated and lonely.”
In a bid to reverse this rising tide, the taskforce was established to co-ordinate what Mr Moynihan described as a “response to the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in Ireland.” And his use of the word “epidemic” was most decidedly deliberate.”We’ve had a huge response to the creation of the taskforce,” he stated. “We’ve had over 3090 submissions made to us from all around the country, urban and rural, from groups representing youth, the elderly and the middle aged and also from individuals who’ve welcomed us setting up to a body to address loneliness, and from a few people who, for the first time, are reaching out and telling us that they’re lonely and how painful that experience has been for them. So the merits for putting this taskforce in place are clearly justified.”
According to Senator Swanwick, the Taskforce Chairperson: “As a GP, in my practice in rural Ireland (Mayo), I often see the profound medical and mental health problems which are often exacerbated by loneliness. I am well aware however, that loneliness crosses the rural-urban divide and I witnessed the same problems a number of years ago as a GP in the heart of Finglas.” He added: “Through the submissions we have received, the Taskforce has heard from people who are young, new parents, those who are divorced or a single parent (a group well worth stressing in this instance), from people with disabilities, returning emigrants, home carers and entrepreneurs. We can say with certainty that loneliness never discriminates between young and old, rich and poor or urban and rural.”
Sean Moynihan said the taskforce has no intention of letting the grass grow beneath its feet, and hopes to produce a “very short report (on loneliness) in a short period of time”. That report, he continued, ought to be published by June or July and will attempt to “explain what loneliness is, who’s affected, where they are and what we feel needs to be done. There’s obviously a need for in-depth research in this area, but that doesn’t stop us from coming up with practical actions that can be taken now.”
Loneliness, Sean Moynihan said, must be considered as a public health issue. “One of the outcomes we’ll be seeking is a new public health policy. And in terms of ourselves at ALONE, our speciality is working with older people, and around one in ten older people suffer isolation and loneliness to the extent that it shortens their lives. In the UK, they’ve responded to this issue by appointing a Minister for Loneliness – now I don’t we’ll be looking for that – but what we will be looking for are answers about who is responsible in Government because right now it probably doesn’t fall on one particular Department, and if nobody is responsible, then nothing gets done. What we need is a structural approach at Government level, then we in turn need to embrace it and get the community and voluntary bodies and agencies involved and then see what we can all do to support people in our communities who suffer from isolation and loneliness.”
In a period of deep division on a range of public debates, addressing loneliness and curbing its worst excesses is surely an issue where we can all come together and do our bit as citizens and, more significantly, as neighbours.