BY James Farrell | November 16 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

10-ELDERLY

Loneliness: The epidemic of the 21st century

ONE of the questions I get asked most often, especially by young people, is about loneliness. There is a presumption that a priestly life is painfully solitary; that our celibacy inevitably brings with it the burden of isolation.

In truth, this has not been my experience. In the parish, I find my priestly life intensely connected to others, an experience of being in the midst of others, journeying alongside families, individuals, older and younger people.

Nonetheless, I am familiar with the cross of loneliness in the lives of those I serve. On a daily basis, I witness the struggles of profound isolation in the lives of many people today. Especially vulnerable to this crippling problem are the elderly.

It may be that family members have moved away or a spouse has died, and the cloud of isolation begins to descend. Many people prefer to be alone, but no one wants to be lonely. Isolation and abandonment is always an unwelcome visitor.

In communities up and down the country, Catholic parishes play a vital role in responding to the growing epidemic of loneliness. In my own parish, like so many others, great numbers of generous parishioners visit those who seem cut off from society.

These volunteers give the gift of their time, one of life’s most precious commodities. Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, St Vincent de Paul, Legion of Mary members and so many other ‘befrienders’ offer a lifeline to our brothers and sisters who, for whatever reason, feel alone.

These volunteers do not profess to work miracles, only to offer a hand of friendship, a word of encouragement over a cup of tea, or a listening ear.

They are true carriers of the Gospel through these simple acts of goodness to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Their work often goes by unnoticed and hidden from sight.

Speaking personally, it can be difficult at times to listen to elderly parishioners recount how their children or grandchildren are too busy to visit them. Even when visits do eventually come, there can be little conversation or personal connection or warmth.

Often people ask why no one comes to visit any more, or why the phone has suddenly stopped ringing. People can feel they have nothing to offer others, or that they are become a burden to loved ones. Days and weeks pass very slowly without company or conversation or companionship.

Yet this feeling of isolation is not confined to the elderly. Even our young people can experience its effects. It’s amazing how lonely a teenager can feel surrounded by friends whose focus is elsewhere, silently glued to the mobile phone, iPad or Xbox.

I fear that the art of conversation is being lost by a younger generation who feel little need to interact with the person facing them. Facebook and Twitter feeds have become poor substitutes for real human interaction.

It’s easy to see that there’s a terrible irony about this growing social problem. Technology has given us the capacity to be more connected than ever before. Yet, in reality, society has never been so disconnected and fragmented.

So many people today prefer to hold a conversation through social media rather than face-to-face. It seems to me that the digital age has done so much to drive a wedge between friends and families.

Technology is creating invisible barriers and disconnecting our most vital relationships. In this new digital environment, conversation evaporates and individuals retreat into their own worlds. As a result, families and friends gradually grow apart, sometimes becoming strangers in the same room.

Of course, the problem of isolation is not confined to the young and elderly. We must not forget to support those priests who will feel the burden of loneliness too. This strain, alongside burnout and so many other ills, can be a feature in the lives of many priests.

Lay people will know that priests are susceptible to these struggles as well. Gone are the days when the clergy benefited from the company of other priests under the same roof. Most now live alone in chapel houses very soon after ordination.

Today, more than ever, we need to foster strong relationships with family and friends to ensure we remain connected to others and supported by them.

Spiritual loneliness, too, can take root in our lives when our prayer life is no longer a priority. Our personal relationship with the Lord gifts us the friendship and intimacy and strength we need to sustain us in our vocation. A life of frenetic ‘doing’ is no replacement for the discipline of daily prayer.

It seems to me that we all have a role to play in tackling this growing epidemic of loneliness. First, we need eyes to see those in our communities who are lonely and in need of friendship and support.

The giving of our time, however small, is indeed a tremendous gift to those who are alone and struggling in this world.

This simple gift has the power to transform the bleakness and monotony of life for those living daily with this hidden and heavy cross.

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