I wake up with a small pit in my stomach every morning. It’s not because I’m depressed but because I’m alone. Yes, after decades of having a rowdy household of three boys and a husband, I am now a woman living alone. One of the lonely people.
There’s a stigma associated with loneliness but I want to look at loneliness objectively, loneliness in general and the isolation of head and neck cancer patients in particular.
Why do governments care? It’s because loneliness is bad for the population’s health. And people are less connected these days leading to an epidemic of loneliness. It can be worse than smoking and drinking for the health.
There’s been a lot of study world wide on how councils can create a greater sense of community in their towns. One weird and wonderful idea is to create “pocket parks” (See pic in latest NZ Listener) a program to transform unused outdoor areas into green spaces where lonely adults can volunteer or simply congregate. Masterton residents were not best pleased when they were introduced. Especially as they blocked roads and took up parking places. Good on the council for trying.
It’s not people’s fault that they’re lonely. Some people find it hard to let others get close. Then as they become more isolated their suspicion that they don’t fit in can increase and they push people away more and more. A vicious cycle. And those of us who have had to give up social eating or who can’t talk well anymore will be lonely due to circumstances beyond our control. Our family, friends and acquaintances try to keep us close but might eventually put us in the too hard basket.
When I moved to Auckland in 2012, I didn’t know anyone apart from family in distant suburbs and it wasn’t long before my husband was in care with only a short time to live. Just as I reached out to the community by joining groups, I had another bad case of head and neck cancer which put me out of action for months. The vibes I got from people I had just met were that they found it distressing and would rather not know.
Eventually I came back. Rejoined groups, volunteered for Hospice shop work, took on roles in U3A and Senior Net. Helped at the Auckland Support Group. This gave me more confidence and mixing with people older than myself in the community was also a bonus. I had the virtue of being physically damaged but more energetic and active. God, it was hard though. Unless I saw family regularly I felt a painful sense of isolation. Added to that was my uncomfortable dental plate which I took out when at home (and still do). I had to scurry inside to put it on if anyone came. I was weak but that was how I felt with top teeth missing to the incisors.
The best things I did were the volunteering roles. They really lifted my confidence. I felt part of teams. I made friends or at least close acquaintances.
Another thing that helped was a change of attitude. With echoes of the Kennedy quote, it wasn’t what other people could do for me but what I could do for others.
I recently saw another upside down gem. It’s for women in the workplace but it can apply to anyone who feels needy and inadequate. We all have something to offer: “Never think that you are not good enough for anyone, always ask yourself if they are good enough for you.”
I like the freedom living alone gives me. All those years as a young mum when I dreamed of having time to myself. Now I have it in spades. Free as a bird. Just have to make sure I spread my wings socially on a regular basis.
As a social species, we are better together.