Sitting at his desk, José Martins, 72, enjoys writing on the new computer he received for Christmas. In addition to having enrolled in computer classes, he does gymnastics, attends Senior University and still devours books. Anyone who sees him now is far from imagining that just two years ago, José couldn’t read or write and lived isolated at home. “I stopped working because of a health problem and I isolated myself at home for several weeks. I had no friends, I had no one”he says. “I thought I was no longer useful for anything, that I no longer had any interest in this life”.
Like many elderly people, without autonomy, José found himself increasingly alone and without motivation to get out of bed. The cry for help came from his daughter, who ended up convincing him to go to a psychology consultation.
“He didn’t do anything when he arrived here, he hardly even knew how to speak. Today he is completely autonomous at home: he knows how to use the cell phone, the ATM, write, read, everything”, explains Diana Tavares, psychologist and founder of Active at Home project. “Isolation is very harmful. It causes much more cognitive loss and all kinds of illnesses”.
Combating loneliness in the elderly is one of the mottos of this project, made up of a team of psychologists who accompany people from 65 to 91 years old, in sessions at home. “Many people come to me who feel lonely, especially after the pandemic. Some were completely autonomous and after isolation they stopped knowing how to cook for their grandchildren, for example. The work we do here is in terms of autonomy, of relearning and adapting “, he explains.
One of the factors that makes the elderly particularly vulnerable to loneliness is the loss of hope and purpose in life, especially after retirement. “People have to feel valid in society. The problem is when society slams the door in these people’s faces. Being old is still very frowned upon”, criticizes the psychologist. This is a taboo that José refuses to accept. Since he started the consultations he has never stopped and every day he dedicates himself to learning something new. “It’s never too late and we are never old”, he says.
Fewer children, more seniors
Portugal is the fastest aging country in the European Union, with twice as many elderly people as children and young people. In 1990, the ratio was 66 elderly people for every 100 young people. Today, we are at 182 for every 100, according to PORDATA. A trend that is expected to continue to increase, with couples having fewer and fewer children. Could we be facing an epidemic of loneliness? What can we do to avoid it?
“There is never a single factor that triggers loneliness. Loneliness is itself complex and results from a complex of factors”, says Adalberto Dias de Carvalho, director of the Observatório da Solitude. “Our data suggest that there is a possibility of loneliness in about 5 out of 10 people”. From socioeconomic factors, to distancing from family and friends, loss of mobility and cognitive functions and social isolation, there are several reasons that make the elderly more susceptible to loneliness. “And then there is also social loneliness. What I see is people with 200 euros of retirement who don’t have access to any kind of social service”, explains Diana Tavares, who considers it important to start thinking about a retirement plan from an early age. “People have to think about where they will be at 80 and how they can organize themselves financially, emotionally and socially today.”
The current inflation scenario makes it difficult to make these long-term plans and, more than that, it may worsen the phenomenon of loneliness among the various age groups. “Inflation will create anxieties, apprehensions, fears and at the same time will deprive many people of access to activities that generate pleasure, such as travelling”, says Adalberto Carvalho.
Do we need a Ministry of Solitude?
Countries like the United Kingdom and Japan saw the need to create a Ministry of Loneliness, to deal with what is considered one of the greatest problems of the modern age. In Portugal, this hypothesis is not yet on the table, but Adalberto Carvalho argues that it should be something to be thought about at a political level. “Addressing the problem of loneliness implies political management of the factors that can trigger it and the therapies that can condition it. This implies decisions, means and resources, which never belong to a single specialty.”
The creation of a national strategy to combat this scourge does not seem so unreasonable if we stop to analyze data from the BBC Loneliness Experiment which concluded, in 2020, that about 30% of humanity experiences loneliness, with the risk of it becoming persistent and becoming a disease.
“Let’s call it the Ministry, let’s call it the Secretary of State, whatever. It would be a political instance, because the phenomenon of loneliness has effects even on productivity itself, on employment and lacks a framework for political intervention”says Adalbert.
It was exactly from this lack of strategies to combat loneliness that, in 2021, the Ageless Pedaling projecta non-profit movement made up of volunteers who take seniors and/or people with reduced mobility on bike rides.
António Silva, 60 years old, is one of the people who regularly participates in Lisbon tours. “It’s a way of going out into the street, seeing the movement, feeling the wind in your face and the sun. It’s very important at all levels”, he says. The project was created in Denmark and is currently present in Portugal in Lisbon, Cascais, Castro Verde and Guimarães.
“We offer people tours, we take them out of the house, we give them back this possibility of living their streets again and visiting places that meant something to them”, explains the executive director of the project, Margarida Quinhones. Tours can be booked free of charge by any institution or individual through the project website or by telephone. In Lisbon alone, there are 150 regular tours per month.
“We offer our time to give the person our full attention. We are also here to listen and value them. It is much more than a walk”, says Margarida. There are volunteers of all ages, who make themselves available, at least once a month, to carry out these tours. “The feedback is immediate”, says one of the volunteers. “It’s such a good feeling to know that we’ve made a difference in someone’s life. It’s coming home with a feeling of accomplishment…”
António is in a home and participates in the walks almost since the beginning of the program. Although the circuit is the same, for him the experience is always worth it. “I had a long time without vision because of the falls and I got to do this tour without being able to see practically nothing”, he says. “After being operated on, I recovered most of my vision and today I value that a lot. Whenever they do the tours, I make a point of coming”. At the end of the journey, António is already thinking about the next one: “There’s another one this week, but I think I’ll give it to someone else. Next week there’s more.”
Dutch supermarket opens “slow box” to fight loneliness
Outside the national territory, strategies to combat loneliness also unfold in innovative initiatives. In the Netherlands, the supermarket Jumbo opened a “slow box” where customers can feel free to chat.
The goal is to combat loneliness, allowing customers who feel more lonely to calmly make payments and talk to employees. The initiative started in 2019, in Vlijmen, but the success of the project led to the plan to open 200 more spaces just like this one.
According to Statistics Netherlands, in the Netherlands there are about 1.3 million people over 75 and 33% say they feel moderately lonely.
In Portugal, none of the supermarket chains has yet come forward with such an initiative.
Seniors offer room to students in exchange for company
For those who live alone, it’s a way to have company. For those who study and are unable to rent a house, it is an accommodation opportunity. The Aconchego project, created by the Câmara do Porto in partnership with the Associação Académica do Porto in 2004, consists of housing students in the homes of elderly people who feel lonely. This union of generations makes it possible to respond to two problems: on the one hand, the difficulty of housing higher education students who do not live in the city; on the other hand, the feeling of loneliness or isolation of elderly people.
“It is a program that, in its genesis, provides a safe home – and not just a room for a student -, as well as an effective company for the elderly”, says Fernando Paulo, councilor for Social Cohesion of Porto City Council. “Together, they collect a priceless wealth: affection. Those who study, have a home. Those who have a home, have company”. Since the beginning and until the end of the previous school year, the Aconchego Program has already benefited 518 people (259 students and 259 elderly people). In this last quarter, 12 beneficiaries are integrated (six students and six seniors), with Portuguese and Brazilian nationality.
The initiative is aimed at anyone over 60 years old, residing in Porto, who lives alone or with their spouse, in a situation of loneliness and/or social isolation, and students, national or foreign, who come to study in the city. do Porto and do not have the financial resources to rent a space.
According to recent data, the average price of a room in Porto is 324 euros. It is also estimated that there are 337 rooms available, according to the Student Accommodation Observatory of the start-up Alfredo Real Estate Analytics.
On the other hand, there are more and more elderly people living alone in cities. More than 44,500 elderly people living alone and/or isolated, or in a situation of vulnerability, were flagged, by the GNR in Operation “Senior Census 2022”, which took place in October. In Porto, there are eleven thousand more than in 2011.
“Thus, the elderly who share their home gain company and see their feeling of loneliness reduced. On the other hand, students receive free accommodation and benefit from a better integration in a new city, inserted in a family environment”, says Fernando Paulo. The objective is not that the younger ones are “caregivers”, but that they at least commit to being a company and to improve the quality of life who welcomes them.
The project is closely monitored by the Municipal Department of Social Cohesion of the Porto City Council and by FAP Social, which verify compliance with the clauses. It is divided into four phases, ranging from filling out the application and interviewing both of them to monitoring and analyzing the results. The truth is that the success of the program is in plain sight. Most memberships are renewed until the student finishes the cycle of studies and a large number of seniors maintain membership in the Program, even proposing to receive new students.
The initiative’s growing visibility has also led to its replication in other municipalities and cities in the country, having been implemented by the Municipality of Mirandela in 2019.
At an international level, it was also recently recognized in Canada as an “age-friendly housing practice” by the World Health Organization. The secret, according to Fernando Paulo, is “in bringing together two generations so distant in age, but so close in feelings”.