By Berit Braun.
If the big challenge of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to prolong the life span of humans, then the one we are facing in the twenty-first is how to deal with the consequences of prolonged lives. In most developed countries, the simultaneous increase in life expectancy and decrease in fertility rate has led to an ageing population that brings with it a whole new range of political, financial and social challenges. With angry teenagers around the world and startling figures of how many Leave voters are dying every day, there is no question that this ever more uneven balance has had a profound effect on the harmony of our democracies. Treasuries and health services around Europe are scratching their heads over how to square an ever-larger proportion of pensioners with complex health needs and a productive, reproductive and tax-paying proportion of the population that is becoming smaller and smaller. Drastic changes in the social organisation of the world have also taken their toll: Urbanisation, globalisation, and the rise of technology mean that the way we relate to each other, our understanding of belonging, and even the meaning of the word “community” are radically different from what they were half a century ago.
Even those older people who, in the eyes of cold-hearted economists, could be described as low maintenance—the ones that can care for themselves and live independently—are negatively affected by these societal shifts. Unlike a dodgy knee, the condition that millions of them find themselves afflicted with cannot be solved surgically: Loneliness. In the UK, it is estimated that more than one in ten suffer from this modern epidemic that has been proven harmful not only to mental but also to physical health, with the detrimental effects deemed equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also a condition that affects more women in than men—on the one hand because they tend to outlive their partners and on the other hand because, having occupied less space in public life, they tend to have smaller social networks once they reach old age.
The UK made headlines in 2018, when, as a legacy of MP Jo Cox’ work, a so-called “Minister for Loneliness” was appointed, making the efforts to combat loneliness a matter of state. The government’s strategy on loneliness, published later that year, lays out plans to enlist the help of healthcare professionals, social workers, and even postal workers in linking up lonely people with opportunities to socialise within the community, and features different ministries and departments vowing to cooperate. It remains to be seen how effective these measures prove. Meanwhile in Spain, a somewhat less high profile and yet refreshingly simple idea has been put into practice for more than 25 years: Intergenerational house-sharing. These programmes, administered mainly by universities, local councils and NGOs, encourage older people living on their own to share their space with a student, which provides them with someone to share mealtimes and watch TV with. The student, in return for their time and commitment, pays very little to no rent—thus simultaneously addressing the problem of skyrocketing housing costs making life in Spain’s principal cities difficult for many young people.
In the end, both approaches have their pitfalls: The UK government’s efforts may fall short—after all, helping those in social isolation not just interact but build meaningful relationships with other people is no small feat—and intergenerational house-shares not only require a great deal of compromise from both sides but also fail to benefit those in rural areas and those who might not have a spare room to offer. The latter, despite its flaws, leaves me more hopeful. How are we going to solve this problem of widespread loneliness that has afflicted our societies, after all, if not by working together and helping each other out?