Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of older people. Joan Arnau, José Manuel Dopico and Teresa Frontera have in the sum 332 years of life experience. They have become disassociated from affective relationships in a society where caring for the elders is neither a moral obligation nor a legal matter. They live with a life ahead that some of them desire to be rather short than long.
Academic authorities and public institutions fighting this circumstantial condition have analysed and explained why the protagonists are in this state of loneliness. All arrive, independently from each other, to potentially significant confluences that present human nature and the direction it has taken.
Voices of the Lonely
Joan Arnau is 85 years old. We are sitting in a bar -“the bar”- where he spends his days “all by himself”. Arnau suffers from what he says is one of the “most powerful diseases in the world,” loneliness. He describes the loneliness staring to the ground and nodding: “You get busted. You don’t know what you have.” Arnau lives together with his 49-year-old son, the only family member left alive. When he talks about him, he sighs, noting that although he is “a very good guy and a hard worker,” he is not a company. Arnau feels “completely alone”, “with a minimum pension”, “with a son whom he hardly talks to” and since a while a Bronchitis that forced him to go to the hospital. “To be this way, I’d rather die,” says Joan Arnau without blinking.
José Manuel Dopico does not want to be a nuisance for his daughter. While lighting a cigarette, he thinks, and when exhaling the smoke through his nose, he says: “I don’t call my daughter because if I do, she will come to see me. I don’t want to push her. She has a lot of work to do”. José Manuel Dopico is 75 years old and lives in a social centre in Palma, Mallorca. He is perfumed, dressed in a turtleneck and tie, and is well-groomed. He was the singer of a well-known Spanish pop group of the 70’s. Dopico speaks eight languages and has a degree in geography. When asked how he came to be in the current situation, he points out that “it is due to bad decisions”. A depression made him move away from music and, therefore, financial stability: He lived on the street for a few years. Stubbing out his cigarette and, nodding, he says, “I feel alone surrounded by people”.
Teresa Frontera is 89 years old, and she accepts her loneliness: “It’s one of the many stages of life”. She lives in a residence for elderlies. Frontera welcomes us in her room, where the television is playing in the background. She has four grown-up grandchildren and a daughter. “I really like telling stories of my past, and I enjoy it when my grandchildren listen, but they are not around for these things,” she says. With a “come on!, forget about the stories” the grandchildren let her know that they are not interested in what she is telling. When this happens, she feels “a little lonely”. Theresa Frontera assumes that the “young people are too focused on the present and themselves”.
An Institutional Response
According to United Nations Haver Analytics DB Global Research, in February 2019, for the first time in history, there are more people in the world aged 65 and above than children below the age of five. As stated by the National Statistics Institute (INE), more than five million people over the age of 65 live –not willingly- alone in Spain, and this number is expected to increase. In Barcelona, according to Els Amics de la Gent Gran, “almost 4,000 people are at home waiting for a place in a residence”. It must be borne in mind that Spain is aging and that in less than 50 years, one in 10 Spaniards will be older than 65.
Loneliness in the old age, has to become a public concern, and this happens by including this matter in the political agenda. In 2015, Barcelona City Council created a department that fights loneliness among elders institutionally. One of the departments projects is called Vincles BCN. The purpose of this municipal service is to break of the digital gap, which is one of the often-ignored causes that leads to the elderly being displaced. It is a form of uncontrollable and inevitable discrimination. Vincles is an application that, according to the project’s coordinator, Enrique Cano “allows you to contact your network of family and friends, who can download the application. It’s like WhatsApp, but simpler”. Cano states that “the digital gap is a much problem then we can imagine”.
Anna Garriga is a researcher at Abat Oliba CEU University and a professor of public policy. Her Husband, Jorge Martínez, is an expert in cultural studies on the social stage.
Anna Garriga emphasizes five factors she considers as the leading causes of loneliness among elderly people. The first and foremost is individualism, which is a tendency that prioritizes the individual over the collective. Secondly, gentrification, that increases the price of a home because its urban space is transformed, claiming reasons for the rehabilitation of the neighborhood, which creates physical distances between the eldest and their descendants. The third is the precariousness of work due to the constant “state of alarm” of families, and the fourth factor is the “ways of understanding leisure” because of the high “price of free time,” which is why people want to get rid of as much responsibilities a possible. Jorge Martínez intervenes: “Our culture legitimizes that we do not have to feel responsible for our elderly people”. Also, Anna Garriga claims that “most relationships, today, are consumerist; we are continually waiting for payback in any relationship and in any way.”
A Confluence of Thoughts
Witnesses come to an understanding: At present, people focus so much on themselves that they forget the world around them. Elderly people can suffer from loneliness despite having a family that believes they have all their needs met. Therefore, the right to decent aging is called into question when consumer relationships determine love. It is crucial to keep in mind that perhaps their silence is the result of new convictions that make them complicit in their solitude. And, if so, think about the elders closest to us, because they may be suffering in silence, despite their smile.