We have occasional flashes of companionship. You are in a long, soggy beer party on a pleasant Saturday with six old friends and, after the fourth long swig, the world suddenly seems full of warmth and bonhomie.
You are at the college reunion and you encounter an old frame who is now married and more rounded, but still evokes an indomitable itch when she stands oh-so-close and gently places a finger on your chest. You know you have great company.
Or you are the prized guest at your son’s birthday party and your charming daughter-in-law suddenly drops in your lap their their cuddly two-year-old who starts fidgeting and touching your face. You feel his little fingers on your cheek, but you also feel your heart leaping. You sense the true warmth of companionable company.
Those are the special moments when we feel in magnificent human companionship, a few magical moments of genuine connection with other humans. But beer parties are short-lived, reunions do not last for ever, and sons and daughters are busy with their own lives and rarely have the time to link with aging parents. For much of the time, we have to fend for ourselves.
That means we have to live with ourselves, in our own orbit, shorn of heart-warming company. Some of our friends have moved; others have become busy with their business and social duties; still others are frail, feeble or hesitant to connect. You can’t blame them, for you understand their problems. And you are left on your own. You are alone.
Loneliness is the supreme fact of our existence. How many of us have close friends with whom we enjoy sharing our life? How many couples live without a single word of empathy in a day or a week? How much and how often do we sense that we have nobody with whom to share a special thought or feeling, the strange sensation you had seeing something on television, reading something in a newspaper, hearing something on the telephone? When the miracle happens and you feel a connection, you know ruefully that it is a miracle and unlikely to happen again any time soon.
Covid-19 is just a new tough headmaster who has just made explicit the stringent rules of the school. It has no more than made dolefully clear the reality of our individual existence, our straggling in this lonely century in shiny, singular silos, mostly cut off from families, torn from meaningful relationships, bereft of friends who once lightened our loads and brightened our darkest hours.
This is only a universalization of what has been happening to older people more and more. Where older people are not pushed like domestic animals into a back room, as in some poorer countries, or poorer regions of a rich country, one-third of people over 60 live alone and one-half of people over 80 have a solitary existence. Most of them live long days, sometimes weeks, without human contact. We know well that it makes them more prone to maladies and more vulnerable to a shortened life span.
What about the new phenomenon of social media? We don’t know enough yet, but it seems that the beneficiaries are still few in number. One reason may be that many older people haven’t taken to Facebook or Twitter and haven’t the benefit of easy access to the internet. The other is that it takes time to feel part of an active group, active enough to check on you if you have been mute for a while. You get a sense of being involved when you respond to another’s post or, better still, somebody responds to your photo or comment. It takes a bit of skill, however, to evoke a response, even more to get sustained responses over time. Often the links are flimsy and sparse and don’t make up for the warmth of personal presence. The technologies of email and phone help mostly those who already have a decent enough nexus with their friends or relatives.
The pandemic has devastated our economies and our health, brought tragedy to a huge number of families. The profound loss may be a shock enough to wake us to the reality of a bigger tragedy that growing steadily in our society: of creeping, insidious, cruel loneliness that silently kills first our souls and then our bodies.