When a closed window shade becomes an SOS sent by those used to living on their own but afraid of dying alone, something has fundamentally changed in a society that not long ago valued human relationships.

In an article for the New York Times, journalist Norimitsu Onishi captures the tragic loneliness of the elderly living in Tokiwadaira, one of the many government housing complexes built in post-war Japan.

Chieko Ito, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday, is one of Tokiwadaira’s lonely residents. She has made a fragile truce with the loneliness that has dogged her for years: she has lived alone for a quarter of a century after the deaths of her daughter and husband. What terrifies her is the thought that she will die alone and no one will know for who knows how long. In Japan, where one in four people is over 65, lonely deaths have become a common phenomenon. In 2006, the average time between death and discovery was 12 days for men and 6.5 days for women.

Chieko Ito prepared her “ending notes” after her 90th birthday, something that has become popular in Japan, and even prepared the money for the company that would clean her apartment after her death.

Two other residents recently died without anyone noticing. Although they had lived in their flats for a long time and had exchanged a few words with their neighbours, their names were not even known. They were discovered only by the pungent odour of decomposition, in an environment of loneliness where the sense of smell is more important than any other. For it, too, distinguishes the smell of life from that of death: the smell of urine, sweat or stale food carries the reassuring signs of life still pulsing.

To avoid the unsettling prospect of a lonely death, Mrs Ito has taken precautions: she has agreed with a neighbour, Mrs Sakai, to check the position of her window screen every day. If it’s not up at the usual early hour, the neighbour has to alert the authorities. But the arrangement doesn’t entirely reassure the nonagenarian: although she has a clear view of the window, her neighbour gets the windows and floors mixed up.

Chieko Ito’s story is repeated all over Japan, although the subject is more or less taboo. “The way we die is a mirror of the way we live,” concludes Takumi Nakazawa, president of the Tokiwadaira housing complex.

New times, new services

The reasons for the loneliness in which Japan’s elderly live and die are complex, but the roots of the problem can be traced back several decades to post-war Japan.

The economic boom that followed the country’s post-war reconstruction reshaped family and community structures in a country with a strong cult of the family, removing individuals from the core of the traditional family and integrating them into the Western model of the nuclear family. Subsequent economic stagnation, coupled with the demographic ageing of the population, has rewritten the old patterns of human interaction, placing on the shoulders of the individual the problems once managed by a family of three generations.

The increasing loneliness of the elderly and the young has opened the way to services that the Japanese would not have needed or thought possible two decades ago. It would have been equally hard to imagine that these services would be taken over by a West silently experiencing the same dramatic breakdown of relationships.

Companies that collect remains and clean houses are increasingly in demand in Japan. Atsushi Takaesu, who runs such a company in Kanagawa, said in 2010 that he had received 40 applications in a single month, compared with 10 a year just seven years prior. Often it is not the relatives of the deceased who use these special cleaning services, but the landlord, who only learns of the sad event when the rent can no longer be deducted from the tenant’s account—and the process can take anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year.

Toru Koremura, the owner of another company that specialises in cleaning homes where lonely people have died, used to be a stockbroker. Today’s business, in which he works side by side with his employees, involves work that most people wouldn’t even want to hear about. He feels that his work, while not a solution to a phenomenon denied by many Japanese and poorly illustrated by statistics, is a pragmatic response to a societal need—to sort out the things left behind by those whom the world forgot long before they died.

Another extreme of loneliness

“More than real” is the motto of the Japanese agency Family Romance, which hires actors to play the role of spouses, friends, parents or colleagues. With a staff of 800 actors ranging in age from young to old, the agency prides itself on “being able to provide a surrogate for almost any conceivable situation”. 

Ishii Yuichi, the agency’s founder, confesses in an interview with The Atlantic that he asks each employee, “Are you prepared to sustain this lie?”

The reality is that Yiuichi himself finds some of the roles he has to play difficult. Perhaps the most challenging is being a father, and not necessarily because the actor doesn’t have children and has never been married. One of the roles he is currently playing is that of the father of a daughter who has already graduated from high school. His fake daughter doesn’t know the truth about Yiuichi’s identity—he’s the only father she’s known since he came into her life 8 years ago. If the mother doesn’t reveal the uncomfortable truth to her daughter, Yiuichi will most likely be called upon to play his part at a future wedding of his client’s daughter, or at the birth of grandchildren.

Although he treats this as business, Yiuichi experiences ambivalent feelings. Reality sometimes overlaps with the fake, creating uncomfortable emotions, especially during sleep, when he dreams of his “children” and the crying episodes that precede farewells. Although his feelings for them are not real and the sessions are pre-arranged and have a fixed price ($200 for 4 hours), the separations are not easy and often cause him sadness.

The founder of Family Romance believes that his work creates balance in an unfair society by substituting a friend or family member where there are bad relationships or unbearable absences. Although the scaffolding on which the false reality is built will sooner or later crumble, Yiuchi believes that for this limited time he is providing happiness and fulfilling basic needs, especially when the script involves a child. When the time comes, the actor leaves the stage because, beyond the emotion, support and care he has provided, he was, in the end, just “an order form”.

The success of this service provided by Japanese companies inspired Scott Rosenbaum to start a similar project in Stewartsville, New Jersey, in 2009. Rosenbaum noticed that while there was a growing demand for temporary family members in Japanese society, there was a niche for this business in the United States: there were dating sites, but no platonic friendship sites. The website Rosenbaum created, RentAFriend, has become the largest online platonic friendship platform in the world.

If people are buying more and more things these days, why shouldn’t we buy friends, asks Vicki, an Australian whose job is that of “friend for hire”. On average, Vicki is paid $30 an hour, but the rate varies depending on the activities she’s involved in, which can range from going to the cinema or for coffee to hot air balloon rides, but it all boils down to platonic encounters.

Having a rented friend will probably never be perfectly acceptable, Vicki admits, because friendship is a natural bond that can’t be mediated by economic interests, which is why clients are sometimes hurt because they end up confused about the nature of the relationship, treating Vicki as a real friend and having similar expectations of her.

Feelings that can’t be handled with detachment, even when the client knows they’re meeting with a service provider and not a real friend, are normal, says psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert. Friendship is not in the realm of things that can be traded, Alpert reminds us, which is why a rented friend is “an oxymoron of sorts”.

As a result, no matter how clearly delineated the relationship, there is always the possibility of frustration or attachment, because no matter the price, the service provided cannot truly satisfy the client’s need—even in a society that has generously expanded the boundaries of the concept of friendship.

Loneliness comes in one size

“We are moving towards a society of loneliness,” say Juan Díez Nicolás and María Morenos Páez, authors of the study Loneliness in Spain, which shows that one in ten Spaniards say they often feel lonely. According to the study, this problem is caused by a combination of factors, from socio-demographic factors (falling birth rates and rising life expectancy) to rural depopulation and technological advances that have weakened traditional communication patterns.

In 2011, the philanthropic network La Fondation de France produced a disturbing x-ray of the loneliness that afflicts French society: one in ten people had fewer than three conversations a year. Dominique Lemaistre, who heads the organisation, said she was “horrified” by this level of loneliness, which affects people over 40 in both urban and rural areas.

The situation was far from improving in 2016. A Crédoc survey commissioned by La Fondation de France found that 5 million people (one in 10) over the age of 15 live alone, with minimal family, neighbourhood or friendship relationships. The data also showed that loneliness is no longer a problem for older people: 11% of people living in isolation were in the 25-39 age group. The survey also found that 65% of respondents believe we are never suspicious enough of others, and 26% feel excluded, abandoned or worthless.

Americans’ social contacts are becoming increasingly limited and tend to be confined to the family, according to the study Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades, conducted in 2006 by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona. While the average American had 2.94 confidants in 1985, that number had fallen to 2.08 by 2004, while the number of people who had no close friends with whom to discuss personal matters had tripled.

A 2014 study by the Office for National Statistics revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe, ranking 26th out of 28 European countries, with the highest number of people who have no neighbourly relationships and no one to support them in a time of crisis. The number of adults with no close friends has risen from one in ten in 2014 and 2015 to more than one in eight Britons in 2017.

The figures paint a frightening picture of a world in which human relationships have become an afterthought. The disappearance of Joyce Carol Vincent, the 38-year-old who died in 2003 and whose body was not discovered until 2006, could not have gone unnoticed in a society with better human connections. Her case piqued the interest of film producer Carol Morley, and the information she painstakingly pieced together to weave Joyce’s life story formed the basis of the 2011 documentary Dreams for a Life.

Described by people in her past as a beautiful, ambitious, socially active girl, the way Joyce died seems to have been taken from a film (but a strikingly familiar one): with the TV on BBC1 and surrounded by gifts she had wrapped but whose recipients remained unknown.

How did we become so alone?

“The freedom of our age is that you can be alone. The price is that you might also have to feel lonely,” wrote the philosopher Alain de Botton in an essay.

We are lonelier than in any other century in history, and there is no shortage of explanations for the impasse we have reached. The family has undergone structural changes in recent decades, and all these changes have directly or indirectly contributed to the growing loneliness of today’s generations. We feel increasingly isolated and fragmented, even from childhood, in a society that has more means than ever to connect us.

Beyond any superficial causes, the chronic loneliness of the modern world is ideological, argues journalist George Monbiot in an article for The Guardian.

He uses Thomas Hobbes’s idea of each man’s war against his fellow man to describe the situation of modern people, who are engaged in a covert war on the front lines of individualism. The changes that society has undergone bear the hallmarks of this struggle, in which the leading role has fallen to the individuals. Freed from the obligations and support of community and family, they have achieved self-realisation by their own means and have undergone the painful metamorphosis from people to individuals. Winning this game of (material) self-realisation at all costs has become the motto and creed of this ideology, which Monbiot describes in stark terms: “a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation”.

Independence is the supreme virtue of this individualistic society, and its exercise begins at birth. In his book The Pursuit of Loneliness, the American sociologist Philip Slater traces the efforts of American society to prepare the individual from the earliest hours for as independent a life as possible: babies are held less than in the past, children and adolescents spend more time alone, and throughout their formative years signs of independence are identified, rewarded, and celebrated by adults. The education system, which revolves around its competitive axis, as well as the fierce competition for employment and job retention, induces the idea that we can (and must) progress by our own efforts, disconnecting us from the traditional values of solidarity, compassion, and cooperation.

The problem is that we are sacrificing something more precious than what we (hope to) gain, in a race where we behave as if human relationships are disposable.

An ambitious survey conducted by Boston College, targeting those with more than $25 million in assets, revealed the list of anxieties faced by people of privileged financial status. While money can solve some problems, others remain unresolved or even worsen. With an average income of $78 million, respondents revealed fears about relationships, work, the development of their children and, perhaps surprisingly, loneliness. Even the material worries so common to ordinary people were not alien to them: most felt they would need another quarter of the value of their existing possessions to feel financially secure.

Psychologist Robert Kenny, one of the architects of the survey, concludes that wealth does not bring the benefits that would compensate for a life sacrificed to accumulate it. And if people could be convinced that wealth would not bring them everything they hoped for, they could focus on what would make them truly happy.

Built to move together

We often find it hard, especially in the active phase of life, to see the true priorities and things that bring lasting fulfilment, but it becomes much clearer to us how life is worth living when we have only scraps of it left.

Bronnie Ware, a nurse who has spent years caring for people with only weeks to live, found that neglecting relationships with loved ones was one of the five most common regrets of the dying.

“We treat the networks we have as incidental, but they’re fundamental to our wellbeing,” says Nicky Forsythe, psychotherapist and founder of Talk for Health. That’s why we shouldn’t ignore (or deny) loneliness, which creates real inner fractures that are as real as physical ones, notes George Monbiot in an article that reviews experiments and studies showing that social mammals prefer physical pain to that caused by isolation, or the anaesthetic role of social contact. The article also refers to research suggesting that the same neural circuits process both physical and emotional pain caused by breakdowns in our social relationships. Even the terms we use to describe both types of pain are identical.

Loneliness thrives amidst the hunger for contact generated by virtual friendships. What has been gained in quantity has been dramatically diluted in quality. Regardless of the number of contacts we can flaunt, loneliness disappears only in a relationship that satisfies the essential needs of the human being.

It is the need to belong that can consume a person even in the tumult of a rich social life, as the British journalist Liz Hoggard points out in a brave article about her own loneliness. Despite professional success and even lasting friendships, Liz has captured from the most uncomfortable angles the loneliness she feels when she longs to belong to a group of friends who live “in each other’s pockets,” cook together or go on holiday. Or when she longs to share her days with a 3D witness of the moments when she’s tired, excited, dishevelled or her hair is damp and messy from the shower. Because, as the journalist points out, it is not the number of interactions we have with others that counts but rather their quality.

In his book Intimacy, psychologist Ziyad Marar points out that a “real encounter” is built on four basic building blocks: kindness, emotion, reciprocity, and complicity. Outside this framework, relationships can leave even a married person, or one who is already part of a group of friends, feeling even more lonely.

The surrogates we turn to to satisfy our hunger for enduring relationships are doomed from the start, though too many of us only come to that conclusion at the end of a gruelling journey. “It is possible—in fact, it is highly likely—to feel lonely in a bustling corporate office. Talent, financial success, fame, even adoration, offers no protection from the subjective experience,” concludes John Cacioppo, director of the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

Asked to name the term that expresses the opposite of loneliness, Cacioppo, who has been studying social isolation for 21 years, said that in the course of his research he had used various terms to express the idea of social connectedness, but none of them could express the whole, capturing only fragments. In fact, loneliness is like pain or thirst—even with these sensations we cannot name their opposite unless we use a formula that includes them: no pain, no thirst. After a long journey through terms and concepts, Professor Cacciopo concluded that the opposite of loneliness had a simple name: normality.

The idea that we can get further by travelling alone than by travelling together is one of the myths that we have unthinkingly internalised in modern times—at least, as long as the cost of loneliness is exorbitant, given that it has increasingly become a public health problem.

And yet, despite its striking dimensions, loneliness is not a problem that we should expect politicians or NGOs to solve. Renewing relationships is within our power, however presumptuous the idea may sound. All we have to do is decide that life cannot be measured in money, and that the impression that all that really matters lies beyond the confines of family or community—and is acquired independently of them—is misleading.

In the turmoil of modern times, Saint-Exupery’s fox could still teach us the lessons of true happiness. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it would reassure us that there are no “merchants of friends,” only a miraculous process called “taming” in which one person, like hundreds of thousands of others, becomes unique to another simply by managing a costly but accessible ingredient: time spent together. With the Little Prince’s initiation into this sacred ritual of friendship, we are also made aware of the seriousness of our responsibility to each other: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.