The meaning of Christmas, and its supposed power to bring friends and family together, is again in evidence this year. Jonathan Freedland admirably called for an end to loneliness, and urged social policy to address it – a sentiment echoed by a Guardian leader.
I do not wish to detract from the importance of addressing chronic loneliness, particularly in the elderly. Many people end up alone, not just over the festive season, but for significantly longer periods, for want of company, and not of their own volition. It is easy to pity them (which is just offensive) and say that we must do more as a society to help them. What is significantly harder is to understand the nature of, and the causes behind, loneliness in various sections of society, and ask whether and where society should act.
Recently, we have begun to regard loneliness, and not just in the elderly, as a purely social problem. In fact, there can be plenty of individual factors that underlie feelings of loneliness – from bereavement to serious medical illnesses. Therefore, trying to address it through political policy without adequate consultation is a cause for concern. After all, do we know that loneliness is largely a social problem? If so, is it just in the elderly or even among younger generations? What engenders it? Apart from a few intuitive ideas invoking the alienation triggered by online worlds, our obsession with communicating via screens, and the intrusiveness of corporate chains, we frankly do not know.
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