More and more people in Germany feel lonely. This emerges from the response of the Federal Government to a request from the FDP Group.
Loneliness especially affects the elderly, but not only. One finding applies to everyone: Loneliness can make you sick.
1. How many people in Germany suffer from loneliness – and what are the consequences for their health?
Loneliness in this country refers to “all sections of the population,” according to the government's response to a request from the FDP parliamentary group, which is in the Tagesspiegel. The number of those suffering from it is rising. According to government sources, the share of affected 45- to 84-year-olds between 2011 and 2017 increased by around 15 percent. In individual age groups, the rate even increased by almost 60 percent. Eight years ago, 5.1 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds felt lonely, most recently at 8.1 percent.
A problem even for young people: Of the 11 to 17 year olds, 4.2 percent said they often or always feel lonely. Loneliness feelings are more often experienced by girls than by boys. The figures are from the German Aging Survey and a long-term study by the Robert Koch Institute on Child Health. The market research institute Splendid Research rates the number of those affected even higher. According to him, in 2017 twelve percent of Germans felt frequently or permanently lonely. People were particularly isolated in the mid-thirties, with a quota of 18 percent.
Scientific studies show that loneliness increases the risk of chronic stress, cardiovascular disease, depression, dementia, early death and suicide. Nursing also occurs earlier and more often in lonely people. According to a study by Brigham Young University, loneliness in relation to total mortality is as harmful as smoking or obesity.
2. How is loneliness defined?
Not everyone with few social contacts is automatically lonely. Even those who are sociable and self-sufficient can create a varied, fulfilling living environment without having to miss the company of others for a long time. “Everybody needs a certain social involvement,” says Jule Specht, Professor of Personality Psychology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. “We all benefit from social contacts in our emotional well-being.”
Accordingly, the extensive absence of social contacts can be defined as a state of loneliness. According to Maike Luhmann, psychology professor at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, indicators are “social inclusion, the number of friendships and the frequency of contacts”. In a study published in 2016 by Luhmann and Louise C. Hawkley (University of Chicago), which is also cited in the Small Request, it states: “A higher level of social inclusion – meeting with friends and relatives, part of social groups too being in church and volunteering is associated with a low degree of loneliness from childhood to old age. “
3. The older, the lonelier?
Luhmann and Hawkley contradict this widespread assumption with their study on “age differences in loneliness from youth to old age”. A particularly strong sense of loneliness therefore exists statistically among young adults around the age of 35, at the age of 60 and in the age-old group. However, researchers find it difficult to find explanations, especially for the loneliness “peak” of young adults. After all, the factors that lead to loneliness beyond personal social integration are especially important for people of old age. The income, the relationship status – living as single or in a relationship – and the size of the household are less relevant for young adults than for the elderly, who also often suffer from physical limitations that further isolate them.
An example: For young and old, it is equally characteristic to be single. This is perceived by the boys but less as a trigger for loneliness, so Luhmann and Hawkley. They argue that a young adult partnership is no longer necessarily a social norm and that younger people “can compensate for the absence of a romantic relationship with a larger social network in their personal and professional life”.
4. What are other reasons for loneliness?
Those who still go to school, study, are in vocational training or are freshly integrated into working life, rather have larger groups of friends. For young people “their lifetime is endless, their focus is on the preparation of the future,” says HU Professor Jule Specht. Older people, on the other hand, are more aware of the finiteness of life. Her focus is therefore on emotional well-being, so that people of this age “have rather small, close circles of friends and hold on to familiar things”. As a result, losses in the circle of friends – such as illness or death – also had a particularly strong impact.
5. What role does digitization play?
Loneliness of young people is often associated with digitization and recreational activities. That especially young men who lose themselves in the virtual world of video games, less social contacts, is obvious. On the other hand, social media promote the exchange between each other. Jule Specht also sees Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp & Co. “as an opportunity to lessen loneliness in every age group, as they enable flexible communication in terms of time and space”. And especially in old age, with physical limitations and for living alone.
6. What is the government doing?
She made a promise. “In the face of an increasingly individualized, mobile and digital society, we will develop strategies and concepts that will prevent loneliness in all ages and combat loneliness,” says page 118 of the Coalition Agreement. In practice, however, she seems rather at a loss. In response to the request, the government concretely points out, in addition to specialist congresses and monitoring, only the promotion of multi-generation houses with 17.5 million euros per year. 540 of them already exist in Germany, almost half of which offer “targeted offers for lonely people”. However, the federal program expires for next year. In addition, measures for village development and care insurance benefits are listed. Thus, there are offers for everyday relief that support people in need of maintaining social contacts.
The FDP member Andrew Ullmann reads from all this that it is not tackled the issue of lack of clear responsibility in concert. Above all, the federal government is “naked when it comes to the loneliness of young people”. Ullmann says, “We should not be so naive as to believe that radical upheavals such as digitization are not affecting the psychosocial level.”
7. How do other countries deal with the topic?
The most advanced are the British. They set up a Loneliness Ministry in 2018. The Department's website states that loneliness is on the way to becoming Britain's most dangerous disease. The Red Cross called the phenomenon an “epidemic hidden”. It found that 200,000 old people on the island only talk to friends or relatives once a month. In Denmark, a study found that every third person feels regularly lonely and isolated. And in Japan, people have long moaned about the Hikikomori syndrome. These are mostly male, young adults who suddenly withdraw and break off all contact with the outside world rigorously. For those affected, there are now special residential homes for reintegration into society.
8. What do politicians demand?
The FDP politician and physician Ullmann calls for a clear strategy to combat loneliness. These included innovative housing and mobility concepts as well as the promotion of health literacy. It is not enough to extend the contracts for multi-generation houses and refer to “a multitude of individual projects,” he says. Rather, it “urgently needs an expert commission, which scientifically evaluates the topic and presents recommendations”. The SPD expert Karl Lauterbach wants to personalize the problem, he urges a government official, who is to take care of the British model of loneliness and loneliness damage in society.
Marcus Weinberg, family policy spokesman for the Union faction, can also imagine a separate area within the government to coordinate action. There had to be more offers that made it possible for lonely people to return to social life, says the CDU politician. And the Greens are pushing for the societal costs of loneliness to be ascertained in order to underpin the urgency of action. She assumes, said her health expert Maria Klein-Schmeink, “that any investment against loneliness and economically worthwhile – not to mention the positive effects on each lonely person”.