Involuntary loneliness is something that affects many older people. At the same time, researchers are sounding the alarm about the global prevalence of loneliness and the link to increased health risks. Loneliness must be taken seriously if we are to achieve the global goals for sustainable development - where "Good health and well-being" is one of the goals.
“Oh, if I had been a dog. Then I would not have had to be alone for more than three hours a day ". Then Gudrun Kullgren Nilsson wrote in a sender in Säffle-Tidningen after listening to a radio program about dogs. Shortly afterwards, the submitter turned into a viral success, not least for its allusion to dark humor, but also because it so successfully illuminated the phenomenon of loneliness.
And of course, the 92-year-old pensioner seems to be on the trail. The problem of loneliness among the elderly is nothing new. Peter Strang, professor at the Department of Oncology-Pathology at Karolinska Institutet, published the book in 2014 Belonging to: about loneliness and community which places human social needs in an evolutionary perspective. Strang claims that the security of being part of a group has meant such a strong survival advantage that hundreds of thousands of years ago we developed strong mechanisms for seeking community and avoiding loneliness.
In his work with elderly, often seriously ill, patients, Peter Strang has witnessed how loneliness and physical pain go hand in hand. He believes that patients who have been plagued by almost unbearable pain experience that the pain decreases sharply as a result of company and physical proximity.
Pain is one of the most common reasons why people seek medical attention - at the same time, many suffer from involuntary loneliness. There are two problems that are connected, Strang claims.
- I think we can get a much healthier population by counteracting the harmful effects of loneliness, he says.
There are many studies that support Strang's claims. In a meta-analysis published in 2010 in the journal PLoS Medicine, a US research team compared loneliness with other known health hazards in terms of the risk of dying prematurely. According to their analysis, involuntary loneliness is as big a risk factor for dying prematurely as smoking - and a greater risk factor than overweight and physical inactivity.
Even outside Sweden's borders, the problem seems to have attracted a lot of attention. In response to a report claiming that more than 9 million Britons always - or to a large extent - suffer from loneliness, England became the first country in the world to introduce a loneliness minister. At the same time showed one American study that as many as 46 percent of the United States' population also suffers from involuntary loneliness.
In Japan, too, the issue has been raised as the combination of an aging population and a reduced birth rate worries those in power. As a measure, it was therefore introduced in 2011 a zero vision with the aim of sharply reducing the number of socially isolated elderly people. By mapping and sharing the movement patterns of older people - to the police authority, voluntary organizations and welfare institutions - a large number of socially isolated people could be contacted and offered support.
Judging by the national efforts introduced to combat loneliness around the world, the phenomenon can be likened to one of the great global challenges of our time. Goal 3 of the global goals for sustainable development is "Good health and well-being". In accordance with the UN, the Swedish government among other things written that the goal is to ensure that everyone can live a healthy life, and that the well-being of people of all ages should be taken into account. It also writes that the global trend of people living longer and longer lives in many cases lacks an adequate support system for older people.
The government's statement testifies to the breadth of the problem - and rarely have shortcomings in care for the elderly been discussed so extensively in Swedish party leader debates and election manifestos. But despite the scale of the public debate, one remaining question echoes blankly: Who should bear the responsibility for the country's many alone? Is it the state, the elderly care or the family that will carry the biggest burden?
While waiting for political action to take effect - and for the global goal of good health and well-being to be achieved - perhaps it would be best if Gudrun, the 92-year-old who testified to her deep loneliness, would get a dog as company so long.