When do we actually consider someone to be lonely?

“Many people mistake loneliness for social isolation, like when no one comes to visit them. But loneliness is subjective. The common definition is: you feel lonely if there is a difference between the contacts you have and the contacts you want. I often cite myself as an example. I have very few good friends, but a couple of really, really good ones. Besides my parents, nobody comes to my home. I love being alone and being in my own small castle. I don’t have a partner; I don’t have any children. So, in terms of what I want, it’s not very much compared to other people. Yet this is exactly how I want it, so I don’t feel lonely.”

Tineke Fokkema is an endowed professor of Ageing, Families and Migration at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences and a senior researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute in The Hague. She specialises in older people, loneliness, intergenerational solidarity and immigration.

How is the Netherlands faring? Are we now lonelier than before corona?

“That depends very much on how and when it is measured. Take the RIVM figures as an example. Back in April 2020, loneliness among all age groups was extremely high, then dropped as summer approached, and rose again in the autumn. Many surveys during corona take place online, so elderly people in nursing homes and immigrant elderly people, for instance, who we suspect are more vulnerable, are often not taken into account. When I look at various national and international studies, the increases are not too bad. Of course, there are always groups that have it really tough, but on average, loneliness has not gone sky high.”

kwestie eenzaamheid fles zee – bas van der schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

People have far fewer contacts than they did before corona.

“That may be because people are lowering their expectations, along the lines of ‘I can’t expect my grandchildren to come over right now’. Then you do not have to feel lonely. Needless to say, the number of contacts people have has fallen, particularly face to face ones. However, the quality of those contacts has generally been consistent. Corona has not suddenly changed the bond you have with your child or friend. In most cases, it takes on a different form. In the past, I often went out to dinner with my best friend, but now we walk a lot instead. It’s the sporty friends, the card-playing club and the colleagues who have all disappeared.”

I see this in my own surroundings: you want to organise a Christmas dinner, but fifteen people in one house is a bit too many. So, you decide to organise something smaller and ten people drop out. That would probably be an uncle or aunt without children who do not belong to the nuclear family.

“Yes, that can happen, but you can also resign yourself to some things. Very often people think: there’s a lonely older person, how can we help them? That person is then taken to a social event. The general idea is that that’s where they’ll get to meet people so that they’re no longer lonely. But that usually doesn’t help. That is an unpalatable message, but loneliness is a more complex matter. We cannot solve it overnight. “

“Why are many people over 80 lonely, for example? Their partner has died. Their health is deteriorating, they are losing their brothers and sisters. If it is chronic, loneliness has adverse effects on your health and you have to do something about it. But is it okay for a person to feel lonely once in a while? I have also lost a number of loved ones. That made me feel very lonely at the time. That also has to do with the respect you have for those who are no longer with you. Then people I knew would ask me: ‘Will you come to dinner with us?’ All very well intended. But no, leave me be in my grief and give me time. This loneliness also goes to show that I have loved these people very much. So, I sometimes say to aid organisations: don’t pounce on someone straight away. People should also take the time to get back on their feet. Yes, there is loneliness. Not everything in life can be fixed.”

It is especially noticeable that young people nowadays are suffering a lot from loneliness. Why is that?

“That’s nothing new, but there used to be less attention paid to it. Young people have always had a higher risk of loneliness. That risk declines in middle-aged people, but then it rises sharply again in people over 80.”

Which groups should we be most concerned about?

“I tend to think about entrepreneurs at the moment. They have enormous financial concerns, which can also lead to feelings of loneliness. And among older immigrants like those with a Turkish and Moroccan background, there is a lot of loneliness. Even before the corona outbreak. I did a lot of research on that myself. You may well think: they are often part of large families and have a lot of contact with each other. But loneliness is not just about the number of contacts. The quality of the contacts is also a determining factor when it comes to feelings of loneliness. If people drop by who aren’t aware of what’s going on with you, or never ask how you’re doing, but are just there, then you can still feel lonely.”

“That is why I sometimes get tired of the stereotypical image that you often see in TV commercials. Then you see a sad man looking into a house full of people enjoying a Christmas meal and a Christmas tree with all those lovely lights in the background. If you don’t feel lonely already, you will after a TV commercial like that. This social pressure seems to be very high for some people. A lot of people plan appointments every day so that they don’t have to be alone. As in, as long as I’m entertained, I’ll be fine; otherwise, I will start thinking about life. But if you are alone and not feeling so strong, how do you feel when you’re being constantly bombarded with the message on the radio and TV that no one should be alone at Christmas? And then I wonder: why shouldn’t you be alone at Christmas?”

kwestie eenzaamheid code black – bas van der schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

You could almost say that it was precisely those people who had a full agenda before corona who became lonelier during corona.

“People who had a lot of social support are now experiencing an increase in loneliness. These people constantly need a caress, a hug, and some attention. If you already have fewer social needs, then those corona measures are less intense. Some studies also suggest that people who were already lonely now believe that everyone is in the same boat and feel better because of that.”

What does help against loneliness?

“In the scientific advisory committee Eén tegen eenzaamheid [Together against loneliness, annotation] This is a scientific advisory committee from the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport for a programme of action to combat loneliness, [/annotation] we emphasise the importance of understanding the effectiveness of the approach to loneliness: which interventions are used, why they work or don’t work, and for which target group.

“There are very few interventions that are backed up by scientific evidence. A handful of interventions have been scientifically proven to help alleviate loneliness for a specific target group. Examples are the friendship course by Nan Stevens (emeritus professor at the VU) and the Grip & Glans by Nardi Steverink (RUG). Both interventions were initially developed for women aged 55 and for those aged 50 and older. This friendship course not only focuses on what you have and what you are missing out on, but also on how to make, maintain and deepen friendships. Some people look for friends and when they find them, they tend to claim them so much that eventually they leave again. In such cases, it is better to learn to put fewer demands on people. In the group course Grip & Glans, participants learn how they can boost their own well-being and get a better grip on their lives.”

What are you expecting this month, during half a lockdown and dark days?

“As the measures become tougher, loneliness will most likely rise again. With the omicron variant, I don’t know how things will turn out. Everyone always wants to have some perspective, but not everything can be fixed or predicted. I like to travel to faraway countries that have different cultures and have also done fieldwork in Morocco for longer periods of time. That makes you realise what a beautiful place we have on this earth. When people become ill, die, or face bankruptcy, I do have a lot of understanding for them. But when people are frustrated that they can’t go on a skiing holiday, I think: ‘Sorry, guys.’ Think about it: there are so many people who can never go on holiday during their whole lifetime. Sometimes life is also about being a bit humbler.