When Italian police in Rome responded to reports of crying and wailing coming from an elderly couple’s house, they likely suspected the worst. In an area that’s a tourist hotspot, notorious for gang activity, scams, and burglary, the four policemen –Andrea, Alessandro, Ernesto and Mirko- responded to the call quickly.
When they entered the property, they found the elderly couple (Michele, 94 and Jole, 89) were in distress, stemming from a news report they’d watched that night about abused children at a kindergarten.
Michele and Jole –married for 70 years- told the officers that they’d become desperately lonely, and had become depressed at the state of the world. With most of their neighbors away over the summer, the couple had not been visited in months.
The four officers –in an effort to provide some comfort and company- cooked the couple a simple meal of spaghetti with butter and parmesan, washed up the dishes afterwards, and stayed to chat and console the couple. They also called an ambulance to make sure they were not suffering from any medical problems.
Their kindliness was effective and helped to calm and reassure the distraught couple.
“Life is not always easy, especially when the city empties and the neighbors are away on holiday. Sometimes loneliness dissolves into tears. Sometimes it’s like a summer storm, it suddenly overwhelms you.”
The police took to Facebook to share the story, calling for stronger social bonds within the community, especially for elderly or vulnerable groups who may be suffering from loneliness.
“There are two lonely souls that need reassuring,” the officers wrote, “Jole and Michele love each other. But when loneliness is a burden on the heart, it can happen that they lose hope. It can happen, like this time, when their despair makes them scream so loud that eventually, someone calls the State Police. There is not a crime. Jole and Michele are not victims of scams and no thief entered the house — there is no one to save. This time, for the boys, there is a more daunting task — two lonely souls who need reassuring. They understand that just a little human warmth will restore tranquility to Jole and Michele.”
The Facebook messages drew international attention, as Facebook users shared the heart-warming story, praising the altruism of the Italian police force (known as Questura di Roma). Others campaigned to send Michele and Jole cards and even care packages.
The incident has brought to bear an interesting phenomenon in society; collective loneliness. Michele and Jole’s experience is a microcosm of a form of isolation which to many goes unnoticed; the ability to be alone whilst in the company of another.
It is not so much a feeling of being entirely without company –the couple had been married for 70 years- it is more a feeling of isolation from the outside world. In some ways, this is a very much understated and thus underrepresented form of loneliness, as many simply assume that if one is in a relationship or has a family, that they cannot be lonely.
However, loneliness isn’t simply an absence of company, and the need for social interaction and companionship isn’t satisfied simply by having people in your physical vicinity. A recent University of California study found that while almost half of its elderly subjects confessed to feeling lonely at times, only 18% of them actually lived alone. Two-thirds of the older adults in the UCSF study who said that they were lonely were either married or living with a partner of some kind.
This suggests that loneliness has root causes that extend beyond that of simply being around people. If you’re sitting on a bus or a train, you may be surrounded by people, but that does not mean you’re not in some way alone.
Another recent study conducted on over 50’s by Brunel University, found that more than half of those identifying themselves as lonely reported feeling that way for more than 10 years.
It seems that in middle age and later life, a pursuit of routine and security can lead to a reduction in social variety, leading people to make new friends at a reduced rate when compared to young adults. The ability to maintain existing friendships and social bonds can also be reduced; this, in turn, can lead to feelings of alienation and introversion.
Psychologists from the University of Chicago who analyzed data from the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular study, found that solitary seniors have a tendency to further isolate themselves by pushing people away and not making efforts to engage with others; this suggests that loneliness is a cumulative and self-perpetuating phenomenon. People begin to feel isolated, which leads to feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness, which in turn causes people to further isolate themselves by rejecting the company or help of others.
AgingCare.com states “In an age where communicating with a friend or family member on the other side of the country takes no more than a few clicks of a mouse, or a few taps on a cell phone screen, research indicates that we are, as a society, more lonely than we have ever been.”
T.Byram Karasu, M.D., chair of Psychiatry and Behavioural sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine states that “[seniors] are lonely because they are alone, they are put in nursing homes, assisted living communities, etc. Those are totally disorienting experiences. Even when they’re being taken care of by family caregivers,” Karasu says “there is often little attention paid to deep, engaging communication between a senior and the rest of the family.”