The remarkable story of why the Netherlands is on a drive to tackle loneliness, and how the problem is being taken increasingly seriously around Europe.
She had been lying dead in the hallway of her Rotterdam home for a decade.
“Nobody noticed,” Dutch health ministry spokesman Axel Dees told Euronews. “It was a huge shock that it is possible in a big city for some to be dead for 10 years and not be missed.”
The 74-year-old was eventually found when street workers reportedly saw letters piled up behind her front door and called the police.
The shock discovery in 2013 sparked Hugo de Jonge into action. Then serving on Rotterdam’s city council, he developed a local plan to tackle loneliness. Now the Dutch health minister, the strategy has gone nationwide.
It’s not just the Netherlands taking action: the UK has appointed the first loneliness minister as European countries begin facing up to the problem.
What is the scale of loneliness in Europe?
One of the problems experts face in establishing whether this is a rising problem across the continent is the paucity of comparative data.
First, loneliness is a subjective feeling that differs across age groups and countries. Second, while there have been studies, they are relatively recent so it is difficult to see loneliness is getting worse.
Loneliness affects 7 per cent of adults in Europe, according to a policy brief from the European Commission.
People in eastern and southern parts say they experience loneliness more than those in western and northern areas, it claims.
In terms of being isolated from society, the problem has been seemingly worse in Italy, the Netherlands and France.
The three all came out above the EU average in a 2015 survey that asked people whether they had someone to ask for help or discuss personal matters with.
Is it only elderly people that are affected by loneliness?
The heartwarming story of carol-singing students bringing a lonely pensioner to tears recently went viral in the UK.
Terrence, 78, had spent every Christmas this century alone, prompting a BBC presenter to arrange a doorstep carol concert.
His plight is not atypical: 1.4 million over-50s in England report feeling lonely often, according to charity Age UK.
Experts say the proportion of the elderly that are lonely has not changed, but the overall number has increased because people are living longer.
Dees said as people age they have less social ties: their work stops and cuts off one network of friends.
“What we see is the numbers among elderly people is really huge,” he said. “They don’t have a natural way of staying in touch with others.
“It is true that children tend to live further away from their parents, so elderly people get less contact from their children and that’s also a cause of loneliness.”
But while initiatives to tackle loneliness focus on the elderly other age groups are more affected, according to ex-MEP Judith Merkies.
She told Euronews a study in Germany had revealed young men were the loneliest and that the problem was increasing in young women.
“A lot of the initiatives tend to focus on the elderly, there is this idea in our heads that if you’re old and fragile you are lonely,” said Merkies, who founded Loneliness in Europe in 2018 to help tackle the problem.
“These initiatives geared towards the lonely are very nice but why do we have these preconceptions about what it is to be old that old would be completely different from the midst of your life?”
What is causing loneliness?
Researchers say bad health, living alone and being poor are all factors that heighten the risk of being lonely.
“But the most important of influences is character and the ability to connect,” Merkies told Euronews.
“The binding factors of the past have evaporated a bit like the church and the school at the centre of the town and our lives.
“There is pressure for productivity. In the past, you could study for a very long time but this has now changed because of financial factors.
“More and more there is a divide between those who work and those who have financial means and those who do not.
“Family is extremely important. People are more disconnected if they have to move away because of where the work is.”
Robin Hewings, director of campaigns at the Campaign to End Loneliness, says one of the biggest risks comes during key life transitions.
“If you move away for a new job or education that can be a big change, particularly with young people, often their friendship groups are moving around and changing a lot more and that can be a real risk,” he said.
“Another real risk is just after you have had children. You were going out to work and all of that social interaction and then your work and social life change radically and you have a screaming baby and it can be a hard, lonely time.”
Beyond life transitions, there have also been questions over the impact on loneliness of new technologies.
“There is absolutely the risk with things like Facebook and Instagram people are kind of putting on their best face and the social comparison can make people feel more lonely,” said Hewings.
“On the other hand, these can be really useful forms of helping to keep social relationships going that if you think back 60 years ago if your son moves to Australia you probably not going to see them again. But now you can speak to them via Skype or a video call.
"There are real opportunities to tackle loneliness through digital technology: it can help people find things that they are interested, people they want to connect with or helping to maintain relationships.”
Case study: What is the Netherlands doing to tackle the issue?
More than 700,000 over 75s in the Netherlands feel lonely and if the country fails to act that could hit a million by 2030, it’s claimed.
Two years ago, the government invested €26 million in a programme that aimed to raise awareness of the issue and urgency to tackle it.
It has encouraged coalitions of willing partners at the grassroots level to tackle the problem and the sharing of the best ideas.
One of the best-known initiatives is in Amsterdam where students are given cheaper accommodation if they live and exchange with elderly people.
Some municipalities have begun writing to over-75s each year and offering to drop round for a coffee.
Elsewhere, some supermarkets have created special “chatty checkouts” to serve elderly people who use their weekly groceries trip as a social occasion and don’t want to be pressured into rushing in-and-out of the ship.
Other companies have trained their staff to recognise signs of loneliness among their customers.
Dees told Euronews: “Postal service workers noticed some elderly people specifically ordered lots of packages — medicines or medical healthcare online — so the packet delivery guy would come there once every week to deliver a package that they did not really need at all.
“Because it was a social activity for them, they just had a chat with the delivery.”
So, what effect is the Dutch scheme having?
“The really wonderful thing is that we really see that there is a broad movement starting in the Netherlands to fight this huge social problem,” said Dees.
“It’s really hard to say what the effect of this is. Maybe even loneliness is actually increasing because of the awareness. But the wonderful thing is that what you see society really cares and wants to change this.”
What can we do to tackle loneliness?
Christmas is so packed with family and friends, many people often turn their thoughts to those on their own.
But while this is helpful, experts are keen to point out loneliness does not just happen during the festive period.
“We worry about loneliness particularly at Christmas,” said Hewings. “But it happens all-the-year-round.
“People say the summer can be a particularly lonely time with people going way.”
Merkies said individuals should start trying to make a difference in their immediate social circles while governments need to ensure young people are educated on how to prepare for life so that they can make social networks.
“We educate the young in order to be able to do maths, to speak languages, but we do not tell them how to connect.
“We have to tell people what it is to connect. What do you need to do to connect? And also give some reality check as to how you connect because on Facebook and on the internet we usually see fairytales that do not exist in real life.
“If you want to connect you have show a real interest, reach out, show vulnerability and work, you have to put in hours and effort.
“Start with education, prepare how we are going to build our cities connecting-proof for the future. Because if we are all living in individual units, doing click work on the internet, maybe the only one we’re going to see is the Amazon deliverer with a package, life is going to be very lonely.
“The online economy is slowly cannibalising the physical economy in our towns so we no longer have stores and our theatres are under pressure. How do you communicate, how do you meet each other when you no longer have a reason to go into town?”
Have you got a story to tell about loneliness? Do you know of any better European initiatives to tackle solitude? Let me know: email@example.com