We live in a time in history when we seem to be connected in every way possible. It seems as if there are few, if any, who have no one to socialize with.
Nevertheless, there are hundreds of people among us who are overwhelmed and impaired by loneliness. Several communities have found creative solutions to this problem, and the benefits have been greater than originally expected.
Jonatan Shaya and Emil Bostrom live in Helsinki. The capital of Finland is one of the most expensive places in the world in terms of rent, even more expensive than New York. Therefore, one of the biggest problems for young adults is finding a home that they can afford.
Jonathan lived with his mother as a student, and Emil was not far from living on the streets, despite being a kindergarten teacher. They heard about a program called “A Home That Fits” that was inititated by an organization looking for creative solutions to meet the need for housing in the increasingly crowded and expensive city.
The idea of the program is simple: young people can sign up to occupy a free studio in a retirement home, at a very low price, provided they spend at least 3-5 hours a week with their “neighbours”. More than 300 young people signed up for the two studios offered initially, and Jonathan and Emil were chosen out of all of them. The experience of living in a nursing home has been a revelation for both of them.
“In a normal apartment, it’s like the neighbours don’t exactly talk to you, because Finnish people are—I don’t know—kind of shy. Here they were very welcoming. I have this really heart-warming feeling that it’s good to be here”, Jonathan says. Since attending pastry courses, Jonathan has become a cake specialist. With this he easily breaks the ice with his nursing home neighbours. They talk together over coffee and cake and learn from each other’s life experience. He shows them how to use new technologies and keeps them up to date.
Emil is delighted to meet people of all ages and is convinced that there is not such a big gap between generations that would prevent him from making friends. “Both young people and old people can benefit from something like this,” he says, suggesting that the idea be replicated wherever possible.
For the elderly in the home, the presence of the two is invaluable. “I once imagined being the Moon and needing the Sun, so I could shine. Now I kind of expect those youngsters to be that sun to me,” Mrs. Ritva says.
Jurriën Mentink also lives in a nursing home, but in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In exchange for 30 hours of volunteering per month, his accommodation is provided for. He befriended people in the home easily and is very attached to his roommates. He stops daily on the way back from work to pick up his 93-year-old neighbour’s favourite fish fillet from the market.
One night he was awakened by a nurse who asked him to help her with a very restless old woman who had started attacking the staff. When she saw him, the lady immediately calmed down. She knew him from the computer classes he had taken with her. They sat together quietly and watched a movie until morning, then Jurriën went to work.
Such stories of how intergenerational living together changes attitudes and improves the lives of all the people involved are also heard of in Spain, France and the United States, where the idea has also been successfully implemented.
Frome is a small town in West England. Its inhabitants have decided not to leave any of its fellow inhabitants who need company alone. The effects of their efforts are impressive and are part of a study that examines whether the significant decrease in emergency hospitalizations in recent years has anything to do with community projects.
It all started in 2013 with Helen Kingston, a family doctor in Frome. She had patients who seemed to be swarming with diseases, and many of them had no one to take care of them. In collaboration with the National Health Service (NHS) and the local town hall, Helen identified the “holes” in the system and came up with a plan to solve the problems. This is how the Compassionate Frome project was born, which changed the atmosphere of the town in just a few years.
The program works as follows: doctors identify patients who feel lonely and send them to a “connector” in the health system, a person who listens to their problems and connects them with a person or group who can help them. In addition to these official “connectors”, the city has another 500 people spreading the word about the program.
Lotte owns a coffee shop, Richard is a driver, Becca is a waitress. What they all have in common is the desire to help the lonely. Their profession allows them to get in touch with many people, so they always have brochures with information about organizations that can help them or with the activities in the program.
The city is now full of themed clubs and various activities, organized for those who are able to move: book clubs, sports, and dance clubs, even a warehouse-workshop for men who want to craft different pieces of furniture.
For those who cannot move, another idea was put into practice. People in the community willing to help were put in touch with sick people who are confined to their homes. “I don’t think anybody can explain what the loneliness is like. I knew that if I didn’t get somebody here to see me, that I would die”, Sue says. Since the beginning of the program, Sue has been visited by dozens of people, and she has befriended many of them.
The atmosphere in the town has been completely changed by these initiatives, as well as the mood of the patients. In the last five years, the number of emergency hospitalizations has decreased by 20%. It is unknown at this time if Helen’s program was the main element that generated this considerable improvement, but that’s not the point. The inhabitants of the town know, without scientifically proven evidence, that there are no more people among them who suffer from loneliness.
Hidden in our “bubble”, limited to our daily concerns, we may be just a few feet away from someone suffering from loneliness. We may never have a well-planned program that brings us closer to them, but there is nothing stopping us from talking to a neighbour we know lives alone or bringing them a piece of the cake we prepared for our family. These are gestures that do not cost us much, but which may be priceless.