Sunday, 1 February 2015

Only the lonely, but here’s an answer to the ‘which came first the chicken or the egg question’

It was a real hurly burly of a week last week. Apart from admiring the grandchildren's snowmen (its a new way to get the drive cleared of snow) there was a lot going on with a great deal of travelling, tight deadlines to meet and much discussion to engage in. Despite seldom being alone, for some reason I found this busy-ness gave rise to a strange sense of loneliness. Thankfully when I checked the degree of loneliness I was actually experiencing using the loneliness test devised by psychologist Daniel Russell, I found I was in the 'normal loneliness' range. Interestingly, most university students, school teachers and nurses are the groups most likely to be placed within this range. However, loneliness is a killer. The pain of loneliness is akin to the experience of physical pain

You can try the loneliness test for yourself here – but beware for some reason there are also invitations for lonely people to meet lovely Russian ladies. The test is featured in John Cacioppo's book 'Loneliness' Written with his colleague William Patrick, a book that explores the health and social consequences of loneliness. Although some people are happy to be alone, most of us thrive in situations that provide opportunities for mutual support. Most people prefer companionship, and healthy relationships are built around having someone in your life who affirms who you are. Feeling that you are part of a group or collective beyond you own existence is also another important factor.

I belong to a number of such groups. For example, last Monday, I spent the morning in the company of the Wrightington, Wigan, and Leigh Foundation Trust Board on a strategic planning day, before travelling to Belfast to be part of the Council of Deans (Health) AGM. Both these groups, healthcare professionals and health care professionals educators provide an opportunity for active participation, re-affirmation of self and to be able to make a contribution that might influence others.

And Wednesday evening saw me at the DW Stadium attending a Council of Governors meeting. It’s not a particularly big stadium, (seats 25000) and is home to both a football team and a rugby league team – collectives that hold no appeal for me at all. It was a wintry evening and the stadium was empty and riding up in the lift alone, it felt like I was the only person there.The first part was given over to Dementia Friends training. It was the third time I have attended such a training session in different organisations, and as always, it was great to see the raising of people’s awareness of those living with dementia.

Whilst not all those living with dementia are old, as a group, older people are far more likely to experience health problems as a consequence of loneliness. Evidence from population studies undertaken in 2012 found that 20% of older people (over the age of 50) felt lonely all the time and 25% felt they have become lonelier over the previous 5 years. 50% felt their loneliness more at the weekends and 75% reported night time being the worse. This and other studies have linked loneliness to many health problems, from high blood pressure, depression, and a raised risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. The 2012 study found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die as the least lonely. 

Of course there are some people who are very happy living a life of solitude. Others might still experience loneliness even amidst family and friends. It’s about feeling involved, needed and valued by the individuals and groups near to us. I ended the week in a good place. I spent the morning with our School Executive developing our response to the first review by the University Executive of our Operational Plan. It was a good meeting, and I hope others, like me felt valued by the group and the work we were doing. I also ended the working week with a smile on my face as finally I was presented with the answer to the question as to which came first, the chicken or the egg? Simon Steer, from Devon, started frying an egg, which then strangely appeared to take the shape of a chicken as it cooked. For me it was the picture of the week.