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“Loneliness is a life-threatening condition”: Many solitary seniors spend the holidays alone

People who suffer from loneliness may find the feeling even harder to bear during the holidays. The social organisation HelsinkiMissio's Aamukorva phone-in service reaches out to people over 60 in Finland, offering them someone to talk to in the morning. Lines are busiest in the last two weeks of December.

Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

HelsinkiMissio is a non-governmental organisation for social services in Finland, founded in 1883. The primary task of HelsinkiMissio is to seek out and help neglected citizens, in addition to challenging everyone to take up their collective societal responsibility and foster community closeness.

The Christmas season keeps the HelsinkiMissio organisation busy. Their Aamukorva morning phone-in service, intended to provide a helpful listening ear to over-60 year olds, is especially popular over the holidays.

Director Olli Valtonen says the 5 to 9 am Aamukorva service acts as a wake-up call for many people who live on their own, a friendly greeting to start the day.

“Older people that aren't in contact with their extended family, children or grandchildren are pretty much abandoned. Most of the calls don’t involve any in-depth therapy –  although there are those, too, and they are rough – but then there are those people that just want to say ‘good morning’ to someone,” Valtonen says.

A larger health hazard than excess weight

Loneliness is different than being alone. Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) says that over 400,000 people in the adult population feel lonely.

At Christmastime, the burden of solitude can feel even heavier.

“Perhaps the best way to describe the feeling of loneliness is to imagine you are lost in the crowd and no one can see you,” says Valtonen.

“The reason can be traced back to our evolution. Homo sapiens were the weakest, slowest and most vulnerable mammal. We shouldn’t have survived. But our brains began to morph to strengthen our communal connections. We became allies, hunting together, because we understood that cooperative agreements worked to everyone’s benefit and must be honoured.”

Valtonen says loneliness can even be a life-threatening condition, as the whole body is constantly on pins and needles.

“The body reacts when someone doesn’t sleep properly. The blood pressure rises. Research results have shown that loneliness is more of a health hazard than being overweight,” he says.

Take the time to say ‘hi’

But how can people help if they suspect a neighbour or acquaintance is lonely? Valtonen has a simple answer.

“Just say something. A few words. A short exchange often suffices.”

Valtonen suspects too many people inadvertently raise the bar too high: thinking they have to invite people to tea or put on some kind of show so lonely people wouldn’t feel so alone. He says this assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“It is associated with one of the Finnish culture’s most astonishing traits: we have a hard time simply saying ‘hello’ to each other.” 

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