Shabbat Zachor – Loneliness and Isolation – Rabbi Miriam Berger

24th February 2018

I’m sure there are plenty of people in this room who crave a little bit of alone time. Those people who rush from work responsibilities into commitments at home and would love 5 minutes to do nothing. Mothers who seek refuge in the loo and even then find themselves in conversation with their kids through the door. Even our teenagers who never allow themselves time to switch off from their ever present friends on social media must crave the occasional moment of peace and quiet just to be themselves.

Yet there is a huge difference between those of us that choose to take time to be alone and those who spend endless time alone because they are isolated by society, their doors, their walls feel impenetrable because people aren’t popping in, the phone isn’t ringing, their diaries aren’t a juggle but an empty void.

The campaign to end loneliness and isolation tells us the eye watering facts.

17% of older people are in contact with family, friends or neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003). That means for 17% of the elderly in our developed 21st century Britain they endure 6 whole days a week when they don’t speak to a single family member, don’t gossip with a single friend not even a neighbour drops in with some shopping or comes to borrow a cup of sugar – with 24 hour supermarkets does anyone borrow sugar anymore?
Yet this isn’t about being old. 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report, feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013). 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to only 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013

So what are these lonely people doing?

Two fifths of all older people in the U.K. (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main source of company (Age UK, 2014) and 1 in 5 GP appointments are made as a direct response to the patient’s sense of loneliness, no wonder it’s a struggle to get an appointment when you need one at a time that fits with your busy lives. Perhaps if these people were not so isolated they wouldn’t fill their time with spurious reasons to see their GP, as the one person they can talk to that week.

I could keep going with the depressing statistics about incredibly high numbers of the LGBTQ community who report feel extreme loneliness or the direct connection between loneliness and the chronic illnesses it can lead to. How can simply being on your own make you ill? Well it’s simple when you don’t get out the house and lead a sedentary life, or when you don’t bother to make healthy meals because it’s just for you, or when you watch the news again and again and again throughout the day yet have nobody to share your thoughts with and the anxiety, the vulnerability it induces becomes over whelming. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are so harmful to our health that lacking social connections has a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.

When a team of us representing the Movement for Reform Judaism looked into initiatives to tackle the issue in our synagogues we turned to the campaign to end loneliness for answers.

Launched in 2011, and governed by five partner organisations, we asked them for tangible suggestions. We have people power right? FRS has over 850 households ourselves, how do we identify those people who themselves contribute to those overwhelming national statistics and then what can the rest of us do? I like quick fixes so I was expecting programmes, initiatives, ways we could get involved in being part of the solution.

I came away frustrated and impatient after a meeting in which a representative from the organisation had addressed us. He gave us all the statistics I have just shocked you with. Talked about the campaigning, lobbying, awareness raising they are doing. He told us about an online campaign, a powerful video they had produced which ended with a click here if you want to help. Among the hundred thousand who filled in their details and said they would get involved were 20,000 young men who put their hand up to say they would help. A demographic so often the ones we find the hardest to engage in voluntary work understood that those who have spent years giving so much to society, building our future, should not be left to fester alone in front of a tv as if forgotten about.

So here’s where the frustration came in. So I asked, what are all your fabulous volunteers doing now? It’s been 7 years since you launched. Well, came the response we are still collecting the data to determine the best cause of action.

As someone who likes everything solved yesterday I was a little flawed by it. I had been expecting a “have a cuppa” initiative or a “go for a walk with a neighbour” idea and then it made sense. Just because you happen to be part of the same statistic as the 3.9 million other people for whom TV is their number one source of companionship doesn’t mean the answer to your loneliness is the same. A neighbour knocking on the door for one would be a huge relief while for another a huge source of anxiety. A buddy system to go for a gentle walk a couple of times a week for one might be just what the doctor ordered whilst someone else could get hours of pleasure baking a cake to prepare for your arrival and for that person who hasn’t had a guest to host in years being at home with company might have far more of an impact. You see it’s not about programmes, it’s about relationships so how much more can they do than prick your conscience? Remind you that there is most probably someone sitting around you in shul, living on your street, maybe someone related to you or someone hiding away in plain sight that you could easily reach out to if you thought they were part of the 3.9 million and just a simply conversation with you could change their day, their emotional wellbeing and may lift them enough to do something to help themselves as well. Who could have imagined that loneliness and isolation was playing such a medically detrimental effect on people’s lives when their only medicine needed was company or that the societal burden could be treated by us all being a little less self involved and a little more conscious of those around us. We may not have the cure for cancer among us but this societal illness the cure is within our capabilities.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Let’s pledge today to remember someone who’s slipped off everyone else’s radar. To overcome our British reserve and see their loneliness, their isolation as a problem we could do something about. Bake a cake and ring on the doorbell for the elderly neighbour who seems to spend a huge amount of time taking the rubbish out in the hope it might lead to a conversation. Pick up the phone to the relative who needs just a little bit more human contact and if not from you then who will they get it from? Don’t assume you don’t know anyone, perhaps they are just better at concealing their loneliness. This Shabbat we are reminded to remember not to forget. We are urged to move from the passive memory to the active response which demonstrates that intellectual reasoning is not enough of a solution, in this case, actions don’t just speak louder than words but could save a life.