CAMBRIDGE – For many of us Christmas season is the busiest time of the year, with plays, parties and dinners with friends, family and colleagues to attend. However, according to Age UK over half a million are alone during this ‘happiest season of all’. Most of them are elderly people. Where nearly a million over the age of 65 see close friends or family once a month or less, it is also the memories of past friends and Christmases that can increase the sense of isolation during the festive season.
There are a number of reasons why this large number of people spend Christmas alone. For example, populations are ageing, with the number of British citizen reaching the age of 65 predicted to rise to 19 million by 2050. There is also the increased relational breakdown in society. More people divorce, fewer children are born and fewer friends and families stay connected later in life. All this means that, many, particularly older people, have fewer family and friends to look after them.
Another major reason for the large-scale loneliness at Christmas is the lack of rootedness across society. With high mobility in society, many families are often dispersed across the country. This means that it is not always easy for them to get together around Christmas. Another consequence of the fact that people spend less time in one place, is that they do not get to know their neighbours well. Less time spent in a community means there is less time and opportunity for deep relationships to develop. Furthermore, because people are moving more frequently, there is actually less incentive to get to know your neighbours, because it is likely that they will only stay for a couple of years before moving on.
Many people now see it as the government’s role to look after the elderly. However, increased government spending can often reinforce the root problem: increased provision can be seen as relieving families and communities of an inconvenient responsibility. Western society has become very much a mass of individuals. And because of this individualism it becomes very easy to discard costly social relationships and duties. Recent research found that only 25% of British adults thought they had responsibility to keep in touch with older neighbours who might be lonely. People less and less consider themselves to have a duty to those who are relationally poor.
So as we invite people to our homes this Christmas, we might want to start thinking about what we can do and what lifestyle choices we can make to shorten the relational distance between us and our elderly and/or lonely neighbours and family. However, while this would have a positive impact on many people’s lives, it is only tackling the effects. If we want to do more than containment, then we must address the causes which revolve around structural and society wide issues. It is society as a whole that needs to become more relational.