An Antidote for Loneliness
In Piano Man, Billy Joel sings about a waitress and a businessman at a bar “sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” However, far worse than drinking solo is what the Japanese call kodokushi: dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a lengthy period of time. Loneliness is a growing phenomenon in Japan, a country with the oldest population in the world.
An estimated 40 percent of Japan’s inhabitants may be solo dwellers by 2040. The rise in kodokushi is most common among younger generations. According to the article “Searching for a Cure for Japan’s Loneliness Epidemic” published by the Huffington Post, about 30,000 lonely deaths occur each year. The story reports that “companies that clean apartments when kodokushi are discovered say the number could be two or three times higher.”
Research shows the sweeping problem can be attributed to a shift in family makeup. A more Western-style nuclear family model is replacing traditional Japanese multigenerational households, which created a safety net for elderly people in the past. At the same time, demanding work schedules prevent sufficient free time for younger people to socialize, find partners, and have families.
As you might expect, a rise in loneliness isn’t exclusive to Japan. “In the UK, 500,000 elderly people say they go at least five days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone. The country is the world’s first to have a minister for loneliness,” the Huffington Post story notes. Moreover, a 2018 study detailed in Fortune revealed that nearly half of Americans—particularly young adults—sometimes or always feel alone.
In the United States, the US Census Bureau says the number of Baby Boomers (those born from 1946 through 1964) peaked at 78.8 million in 1999, making them the largest living adult generation until last year, when the population of Millennials (1981–1996) swelled to 73 million while the number of Boomers declined to 72 million.
What happens when one of the largest segments of the US population becomes the oldest group? As Boomers retire and people live longer, do they seek new careers? Return to college? Or, do they suffer from acute loneliness? Do churches need a “minister for loneliness” to respond to this growing cultural challenge?
Rabbi and author Harold Kushner and other modern religious sages believe that when we decide to see that others need and are entitled to love just as we are, we find that the best antidote to our own loneliness is to reach out to people who are by themselves. In addition, in the Catholic Church, as well as in other religions throughout the world, we believe that the closeness of God to us and our fellow men and women will guard us from the harm of despair and abandonment. No matter what our situation is, once we believe in a heartfelt way that God is with us and within us, we never walk alone.
Many Baby Boomers are becoming more involved in religious activities and religion overall in their later years, according to data collected from the Longitudinal Study of Generations in 2018. Sharing a drink called loneliness may be better than drinking alone, but Boomers are sharing something they call faith—and that’s far better than dying alone.