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Lorraine Courtney: 'This hyper-connected world has left some behind, cut off and lonelier than ever before'


Isolation: Studies have found that long-term loneliness can affect physical health. Stock picture

Isolation: Studies have found that long-term loneliness can affect physical health. Stock picture

Isolation: Studies have found that long-term loneliness can affect physical health. Stock picture

The heartbreaking story of George Harrington, who was found in his Cork flat several months after he had died, brings to the surface our problem with social isolation.

Dying alone and being missed by no one is probably everyone's not-so-secret fear. The idea of having nobody. No connections.

The Cork city coroner expressed deep concern after hearing how Mr Harrington lay dead in his suburban flat for several months before being found.

It was the second such case he had heard in a week and it was the third such case in an Irish coroner's court in seven days. "Nobody seemed to miss him and I think that's the greatest tragedy of this inquest," said coroner Philip Comyn.

We are living in an isolated time. We're in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, experts warn. Many blame it on social media. Those colourful apps isolate us, even as they promise to connect us closer.

We all know this, but we still log on to glimpse the lives of others via Instagram when we find ourselves feeling sad, lonely and in need of human company.

Research suggests that chronic long-term loneliness is physically detrimental to our health and longevity - even worse, possibly, than obesity.

Health experts claim the lonely are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer and early death. Neuroscientists are working on a "loneliness pill".

This loneliness isn't rooted in any one thing, but it's easy to blame it on things such as the breakdown of the traditional family unit. In 2016, there were 218,817 (25.4pc) family units with children headed by a lone parent, an increase of more than 3,500 families since 2011.

More and more of us are living alone -there were 399,815 of us living on our own at the time of the last Census, almost evenly split between men and women.

If you live alone, you must leave the house and you must go out in the evening if you want to meet people. Sometimes you don't feel like doing any of these things, and before you know it, a whole weekend has gone by and you realise you haven't spoken to another human being since the previous Friday at work.

A 2017 report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness sounded the alarm by sharing that in Britain, more than nine million people "often or always feel lonely". The UK government appointed a "minister for loneliness". A press release announcing the appointment quoted Theresa May promising to bring together "businesses and charities to shine a light on the issue and end the acceptance of loneliness for good".

I'm not sure that a new government ministry can fix us. A Minister for Loneliness just sounds like a character from a dystopian novel. Working out what to do about the problem is hard.

Loneliness is a failure of our environments, and the governments who created or neglected them. Ireland's social infrastructure has crumbled over the past few years: the institutions that make up daily life, the spaces where we meet up with friends and neighbours and the spaces that push strangers together are slowly disappearing.

The strategy for our public libraries is that they are open, but staffless. The pub used to bring people together, but local bars are closing - we have 1,500 fewer pubs than in 2006. Self-service checkouts at supermarkets have replaced the corner shop. Rural post offices are closing down and social institutions are becoming a less and less common aspect of people's daily lives.

Every post office and pub closure has been a news story. Each affects a different demographic. But knit them together and there is a dark picture of life in 2019.

We're increasingly a nation of renters, and people in rented flats don't strictly see themselves living there in the long term, and don't feel the need to create a sense of community. While Government strategies are to blame for our increasing isolation, it's our own fault, too.

We don't go to Mass and haven't found a way to replace the way it brought us together. School gates have become high-pressured, competitive environments, rather than friendly, nurturing ones. Our way of working is harmful to making connections, too. We have always-on jobs that follow us home for the evening, with emails and texts pinging on to our phones.

With much of our lives having moved online, people have become detached from their local community. One survey found that only 57pc cent of Irish people interact with their neighbours regularly.

Borrowing from neighbours was once commonplace, part of the web of relations we used to have with those who lived nearby. Nowadays, we'd be stunned if someone came over to borrow something. I've only spoken to people aged 60-plus on my street - anybody younger stares into the middle distance as we silently glide past one another on the footpath.

We still don't know what effect digital communication is having on us, whether we're evolving or seriously regressing.

Maybe this is the way we want to live, everybody keeping to themselves, but never forget that our real-life social networks provide us with the single most important buffer against mental and physical illness.

Humans need to be part of a community, and when we don't have that, we start to fall apart. A simple "hello" to your neighbour today would be a start.

Irish Independent